Chapter 1: Fire Lord
They let Zuko out of his cell because the world was ending. The Fire Lord was defeated, the guards told him, even though the Fire Lord was here just this morning. Tall and strong, alive, gloating one more time on his way to burn the Earth Kingdom down.
That was yesterday, they told him. It wasn't the worst slip of time he'd had, and it didn’t make their words any more believable.
"How?" His voice was raspier than usual. They hadn’t brought him water when they came. One of the guards cringed like he expected to be lit on fire for this oversight, which told Zuko everything he needed to know about their expectations for him. They let him out anyway. This told him something else.
It was the Avatar, of course. Somewhere over in the Earth Kingdom, and reports were conflicted on whether Ozai was dead or a prisoner or something inexplicably worse, but he was definitely defeated.
His father had been defeated, and his fourteen-year-old sister was—was banishing everyone, was insane, she hadn't killed anyone (yet) but it wasn't for lack of trying. They'd abandoned a whole wing of the palace to her—
No one had given the order to set him free, Zuko realized. No one wanted him; they just needed him. This took him longer than it should have to understand, but the guards were speaking so fast and no one had really talked to him in weeks, and—and he stopped at the prison entrance, and didn’t hear anything for a while.
He hadn’t seen the sun in weeks, either.
"Your Highness?" one of the guards tried on for size. Tried again: "...Your Majesty?"
Fire Lord Ozai was defeated. Fire Lord Azula was insane. Fire Lord Zuko was crowned by sunset, the nation's fallback heir.
Chapter 2: War Council
They estimated two months at the earliest until the allied forces of Water and Earth could be on their shores again in any appreciable numbers. Four or five if they got lucky, and the typhoons started early enough to protect them. The Divine Winds had destroyed fleets in the past, but Zuko didn’t think they could count on the spirits of ocean and air to favor them this time.
The war can still be won, they told him.
"Why?" he blurted out, because he’d only been out of that cell for fourteen hours and he hadn't slept in—in awhile (bathing seemed more important than sleeping, and he would stand by that decision if it was the last he ever made). "What was ever the point? There's not even anything in Ba Sing Se except for a million starving refugees." Personal experience. "They took it back, let them have it. We need to…" No one was challenging him, no one was trying to kick him out. So he kept talking. He never did know when to shut up in war councils. "We need to consolidate power at the colonies, and the blockade. We already have the parts of the Earth Kingdom we wanted, we've had them for fifty years. The mines and the refineries and—" and still no one was interrupting him, it even looked like they were listening, so of course it was getting harder and harder to string words together coherently. "We… we already won the war. A long time ago. Now we need to not lose."
He had attended one war council in his life; now he was taking three meals a day around that table and he and the senior ministers were going through a fiefdom's worth of candles at night, and he was waking up with troop movements inked backwards on his cheek.
And—and people were listening. To him. At first it was because so many ranking officers were on the destroyed airship fleet or were still out in the field, because in the shock of air rushing into that power vacuum they were startled to remember Ozai's other child. But then the first field commanders reported in, the Admirals of the Northern and Eastern fleets and the Generals of Omashu and Gaoling and Ba Sing Se, and people were still listening. He wasn’t really sure why. He wasn’t insane or incapacitated, so those were points in his favor. But everyone knew he’d confronted Ozai on the Day of Black Sun, they knew he was three feet and a pathetic failing of determination shy of assassinating their preferred Fire Lord with the man's own lightning, there was no way they actually wanted to listen to him.
Probably they were just sorting out the power dynamics between themselves. Getting their factions together. They would overthrow him when they were good and ready, put him back in his cell where he could get some real sleep or execute him and then he wouldn't be tired anymore. Until then, he’d just keep… being Fire Lord. And he’d put everything he had into it, because he didn’t know how to do anything less.
It never occurred to him that he'd seen more of the seas than both his Admirals combined, fought against both halves of the Water Tribe. That when he looked into the Northern Admiral's eyes and the man looked into his they both saw bodies floating on the waves. It was something you had to be there to understand, to comprehend, and Zuko had been, and when the Northern Admiral insisted that they consider the possibility of spirit involvement in any future Avatar-related battles and the Generals laughed at him for it, their new Fire Lord went on his first tirade since those no-name guards decided to let him out of prison.
He apologized for it once he got a grip on himself, which was as good a place as any to break for lunch because by the looks on their faces he thought he just broke them. Not with the yelling. With the apologizing.
Well. They’d already known he was weak, so whatever.
As they planned troop withdrawals back to the colonies and the mainland, it never occurred to him that he didn’t just know every port along the enemy's coast, he knew how many slips at their docks could fit which classes of Fire Navy ships and which nominally Earth harbors might be willing to look the other way if troops were being onloaded instead of offloaded. That he casually named Earth Kingdom towns that weren't on his Generals' maps, and complained about terrain features he'd had to personally walk. The Si Wong desert knew ten thousand ways to get sand in your eyes, and they were not sending a division marching through it as a shortcut, have you ever tried doing double-time through a dry boiling sea full of thieving sandbenders, General Waido? It's faster to go around.
It never occurred to him that he was sitting at the head of the council table, not behind a curtain of flames. Or that as much as they were listening to him, he was listening to them.
Two months at the earliest, his advisors had forecast, so of course it was one month and twenty-seven days later that the bison landed in his courtyard. The part of him that had been reviewing military resources in his dreams thought actually that's not the worst move ever, it's not like we have air support to stop them from leaving again if this goes wrong and a small strike force of overpowered benders can do as much damage as an army, especially in the middle of our capital, no wonder Sozin hated airbenders—
He didn’t want to fight the stupid monk and his underage entourage. He… he'd wanted to join them. (How was that ever supposed to work? He'd had his swords and supplies and a war balloon hidden just outside the city, but he'd never had a plan.) This wasn't how he wanted to meet them again. (Dressed like his father, who they already defeated. Not that the person under the clothes was any better, they hated him, he knew they hated him—)
His mouth was already turning down into a scowl. It was a natural reaction. "Avatar." And he couldn’t think of anything else to add, because do you think we could have been friends didn’t seem like an appropriate follow-up.
All four nations were aboard: Air, Water, Earth. Fire stepped down last, and willingly met his eyes for the first time since Ba Sing Se.
"Uncle," Zuko breathed.
The Dragon of the West looked at the crown in his hair and the military commanders at his back, and still had nothing to say to his wayward nephew.
Well. One thing.
"Fire Lord Zuko."
Not Zuko. Not nephew. He… deserved that.
Chapter 3: The Most Awkward Family Reunion in the History of Ever
Damnit Sokka this story was supposed to stay Zuko POV, but then you kept ranting in my head. Take your chapter and choke on it, you verbose attention cow-hog. (I love you, Sokka.)
As narrated by Sokka, Warrior of the Southern Water Tribe, Inventor of the Airship Slice, You-May-Have-Heard-of-Him
This was the coldest family reunion Sokka had ever seen. No hugs, no smiles, no excitement, just a lot of side-scowling in Aang's direction from Prince Better-Than-Them, sorry, Fire Lord Better-Than-Them. Iroh was trying to play it cool and composed. He had his Wise Old Man face on and his hands tucked in his sleeves and he wasn’t running forward to sob into his nephew's shirt which Sokka had been mildly concerned would happen. But this was just… worse. So much worse. Sokka could actually see the old guy's heart breaking with every second his nephew wouldn't even look at him, and it was taking all of his willpower not to Sneak Attack his fist into the Prince's—sorry, the Fire Lord's face.
And could they please talk about how Zuko was the Fire Lord? More than they already had, because less-than-two-months was not enough time to process this. He had not just fought a war to play kingmaker for Prince Jerkbender, sorry, Fire Lord Jerkbender.
"So how long did you wait to get crowned after we kicked your dad's ass?" Sokka asked, breaking this stalemate of silence in the least appropriate way. It was a special talent of his, and all the old frowny-scowly guys standing behind Zuko bristled nicely and all the guards behind them looked just a little more ready to have roast Water Tribe for lunch.
"A day," Zuko said, like someone had given him the same script for this joke that Sokka was reading from. But Sokka had to say, his delivery sucked. Guy was so hopelessly serious he couldn’t even cut it as a straight man.
"I am sure it was quite the story," Iroh said mildly. Peaceably. We're-not-here-to-fight-ily, unless-you-make-us-ily.
"Umm," Prince Eloquent, sorry, Fire Lord Eloquent said, rubbing the back of his neck. "It's… it's not that exciting."
Iroh didn’t press for details and the world's worst nephew didn’t offer them. Sokka could tell it was killing the old dragon to stand here and not hug his least homicidal relative (and wasn't that just the sliding scale to end all sliding scales). Hug him like he'd hugged all of them in those days before the comet and after, just wrapping them up in his warm ridiculously muscled but still squishy-comfortable arms and letting them know that it was all going to be okay. At least, Sokka's pretty sure that was what the old guy was telling them; he wasn’t fluent in Proverb.
Worst Nephew, sorry, Fire Lord Worst Nephew definitely looked like he needed someone telling him that. And the associated hugs. Because what he actually looked like was that someone held him down and punched dark circles under his good eye, then pulled him back to his feet and fixed his hair. Bastard had perfect hair, seriously, there was just this one strand artistically out of place on his forehead and Sokka did not know why this filled him with inexplicable rage. Mostly Zuko, sorry, Fire Lord Zuko just had that effect on him. It was kind of a whole package deal, and the hair was just the part of it that made Sokka's own wind-mussed wolftail feel personally inadequate. He knew he should have finger-combed before he hopped down from the bison.
Aang was standing a little behind Iroh, the center of a supportive Katara-and-Toph sandwich. The friendly hyperactive chatterbox monk wasn't saying a thing, even though this let's-see-if-talking-to-the-new-Warmonger-Lord-helps shtick was supposed to be his show. He was just… staring. And Sokka knew Aang stopped having nightmares about Ozai after he beat him, but the kid had never stopped having them about Scarface, sorry, Fire Lord Scarface.
They would all probably have just kept standing here being awkward forever. But then Zuko glanced up just long enough to actually meet his uncle's eyes, and said it. Said it like he was twisting the knife of Stiff Formalities and using it to gut the one thing his uncle loved most, besides his own stupid self. Sorry, Fire Lord Stupid Self.
"...Would you like tea?"
And sure the old guy liked his tea, but like they were really going to drink anything prepared by minions of the Fire Lord—
"We would be honored to accept your generous hospitality, Fire Lord Zuko."
—Okay, but Sokka was not drinking until that guy drank first. Sorry. Fire Lord That Guy Drank First.
Chapter 4: Boom
Zuko panicked. Zuko panicked, and now they were waiting for tea around a low table in some quiet side room off the bison-infested courtyard that he wasn't sure he'd seen since before he was banished. There were ink paintings of seaside villages on the walls and the cushions on the floor were blue, and somehow that made the Water Tribe peasant (oh Agni what was his name) scowl even harder. He wasn’t even sitting at the table with the rest of them; he was leaning against the wall by a window, keeping his weight off of one leg (had he hurt it? Wasn't his sister a healer?), alternating between paranoid glances out at their six-legged mode of retreat and glares at absolutely everything else in the Fire Nation.
A servant brought in their tea on a tray. Zuko took it without thinking, which put both him and the servant into the extremely awkward position of realizing that the Fire Lord was going to pour. The servant held onto the tray for one last moment of shock, then let him have it. Retreated from the room, with a demure bow. Zuko took the tray, and set it on the table, and started to serve. His form was as perfect as when he was a waiter in Uncle's shop, when he actually started putting effort into their new life. He hadn’t liked the job, but that had never stopped him from doing things well. Or at least, with determination. He brought the cups around to each of them, including Water-Tribe-by-the-Window. The teenager glared at the porcelain like he expected it to crash a ship into his village. Zuko just… set it on the floor. And took his own seat at the table. And finally started meeting their eyes, which was exactly as bad as he'd expected.
Uncle still had on his Quietly Disappointed With Your Life Choices face. The Avatar— Avatar Aang kept looking between them. He was fiddling with his cup, running a finger around the rim. Zuko saw frost lacing over the tea's surface, then it steamed, then the frost again. Toph (he'd only met her once, why did he remember her name?) was looking vaguely unfocused and highly amused. She was somehow managing to not look at anything but smirk at everything. Katara looked somewhere between murderous and baffled.
"You really did work in a tea shop," she muttered.
Uncle smiled fondly at her, a You Should Have Believed Me, But I Forgive You As Always smile. Zuko looked away. Said, maybe more harshly than intended: "Why are you here?"
Which was the point where something further inside the palace exploded.
Immediately the Avatar's group were all on their feet, even Uncle, and pointing swords and water flasks and bending-ready fists his way, except for Uncle. And the Avatar's earthbender—she tilted her head and shifted her stance to face a wall in the explosion's direction. Uncle watched, and mirrored her. Zuko's shoulders stiffened, but he kept his hands in sight and didn’t stand and hoped that not defending himself led to world peace and not life-threatening injuries. He needed them to trust him. And... he had forgotten to warn them about the explosions. A little.
That left three people actively threatening the still-seated Fire Lord when his guards politely knocked-and-entered.
"Your Majesty—" the first one through the door said, bowing low in that moment before the scene caught up to her. Then there were more swords and more bending stances and also shouting for backup until he raised a forestalling hand.
"Again?" he asked, ignoring all the near-violence and hoping the guards would follow his lead, he was too tired to deal with international brawls at tea time.
"...Yes, Your Majesty."
"Please excuse me," he told the Avatar's group, taking in a deep breath that gave him enough energy to stand. "I'll…" Be back shortly? Probably not. "...I'll have someone send in lunch. Captain Izumi, our guests have free use of this room and the courtyard in my absence."
The guard bowed again, dubiously, and waved her men aside as her Fire Lord stepped past into the hall.
"Zuko," Uncle said, just Zuko, and Zuko's heart stuttered a beat. "Was that lightning?"
"Yeah," he said. He couldn’t look back, because what if Uncle had that You're Going Into Danger Without Me look on his face? ...What if he didn't? "I'll handle it, Uncle. Enjoy your tea."
One of the guards slid the door shut behind him. Zuko unpinned the crown from his hair, and went to see his sister.
Chapter 5: A Hundred Little Pieces Falling Through Her Hands
Sokka has broken the POV floodgates. So. Have some Azula!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Azula was no fool, contrary to what her brother and his new lackeys and all the palace servants and guards and flunkies and the nation and the world seemed to think. She was also neither insane nor paranoid. Was it either insanity or paranoia when everyone really did betray you, Mai? Was it either insanity or paranoia when your so-called friend decided your other so-called friend was more worthy of loyalty, Ty Lee? Was it either insanity or paranoia to deal with people before they stabbed your heart out and fed it to you so down it went back inside where they could rip it out all over again?
Azula was no fool. But she did keep one on retainer.
"...Azula?" Zuzu's timing was impeccable. It had taken some re-training since his return, but he was really coming along nicely. Just like breaking in a dog-lizard, or bringing lightning to her hands: positive and negative reinforcement.
"You may enter," she allowed. She was lounging back on a cushion by the window. The curtains above her were on fire, the wooden frame behind her shattered, the sky outside properly warned as to her general opinion on sending clouds to cross her path when she was enjoying a good sunbeam sprawl.
He cursed—three years on a navy ship, such a mouth on him now—and scrambled to put it out. She examined her nails while he did, internally counting how long it took him to go from manually trying to beat it out to using his firebending. And oh, what was that, his sleep-deprived chi was no match for hers? It took him a full seventeen seconds to realize the curtains were getting neither more nor less on fire no matter what he tried. They were flaring rather nicely with her breathing, actually. Azula had never meditated with candles when property destruction would do.
"Azula," he sighed, and she could actually see him sag in place.
"Is that the proper way to address your Fire Lord?" She would have to repaint her nails soon. It wasn’t something she was used to doing on her own. Ty Lee— (Said she was concerned, said she cared, but while her mouth ran her actions were choosing Mai, Mai who'd chosen Zuko, Zuko who didn't even know because Azula had caught the pair of rat-vipers before they'd ever reached his cell. What did loyalty feel like, when you didn't even know it was given? Probably the same as never being given it at all.)
Zuko sighed, and knelt, and gave a perfunctory bow to the ground before rising back to a courtly seated position. She almost demanded he stand again, because he made sitting look just a slow exhalation away from falling asleep.
"Fire Lord Azula," his eyes flickered to the remains of the window behind her, "did you… request my presence?"
"Zuzu, if I broke a window every time I wanted you, I'd have to leave this wing."
She could actually see the terror grip his spine. She was no fool: she heard the hesitation before the scared scuttling servants call her Fire Lord. He always removed the five-pronged crown before he dared approach her, but he forget to put the crown of a prince back in. And as the sleepless circle under his good eye had darkened, he'd stopped remembering to shed his robes of office before running to her. Or perhaps he'd just gotten quicker at running. Her lips quirked at the thought.
"Perhaps I should go out," she said, tapping a sharp fingernail against her chin. "I imagine court business has gotten quite piled up, without the Fire Lord to approve matters."
"I— That's— There's been nothing that requires your attention, Fire Lord Azula."
"Really." She smiled and watched his face, that delightful medley of all the lies he was too tired to even try. "What news of father?"
The curtains behind her flared blue. "Zuzu. Titles."
He grit his teeth. "The Phoenix King is still in the Earth Kingdom."
And there was a lie in there too, but she couldn’t wouldn't didn't read it—
(Father had been gone so long.)
(Father had left her here, left her with a golden cast-off crown he didn't want anymore and no one she could trust and a mirror that made her look so ugly that she had to break it into a hundred little pieces of her staring up from the floor, each as imperfect as the last, where did they live before she broke it?)
"Azula? Are you okay?"
His hand was hovering, was reaching for her, the impertinence of him she should burn him banish him just go away don't look—
"That will be all, Zuko." The flames on the curtains behind her were snuffed, were smoke, were cold except for the sun.
He hesitated. His eyes looked just like Ty Lee's when she said We're worried about you.
"Zuzu," she said, before he could make any particularly foolish mistakes, "if you hug me, I will immolate you. You are dismissed."
He lowered his hand. Stood, a lot less gracefully than he did before he was Fire Lord (before father took him and threw him in jail, and really, if they were going to do that every time Zuko did something stupidly treasonous in the name of their nation's honor, why had father even let him come home?)
(Because Azula had asked.)
He was still watching her, looking, peering but it was only Zuko. "Are the servants treating you right? Do we need to banish anyone else?"
She'd seen the ones he'd banished from her windows, smiling and walking through the palace grounds, still impertinently serving in other wings. She would go outside and punish them herself (but then they would see her, a hundred little pieces on the floor that cut her hands as she tried to pick them up, they would never fit together without seams, never be perfect again, if she went out they would see) but she really couldn’t be bothered with peasants. It was far more entertaining to let Fire Lord Zuko handle them for her, her own royal secretary working himself down to ashes. "Zuzu, I hardly need your help managing my own staff."
He shifted his weight. "...You know you can call for me, right? Without lighting things on fire. I'd come."
He would, too. The Dum-Dum.
"What part of 'dismissed' do you not understand?"
She was no fool. She was neither insane nor paranoid. And she was not weak, she did not need her big brother who might as well be her little brother for all the sense he had, did not need him acting like he could protect her.
From what? She was the Fire Lord. She was just letting him handle the administrative details. She could have that crown of his back any time she wanted, and he knew it. One little Agni Kai was all it took for royalty to supplant royalty. They had equal claim to the throne: he the older heir and a known screw up, she the younger and the favored in the eyes of Agni and father and the Sages crowned her first. Or she could just kill him on one of these little visits. There was no one in the entire Fire Nation who could stop her.
He was at the door now, his back to her, and for one moment he looked like he might change his mind and stay. Fire Lord Azula rolled her eyes, and trailed her arms in a purposeful circle.
"Oh, and Zuzu? Catch."
It was just enough warning for him to turn and root his stance. He did that little redirection trick of Uncle's, and for just one moment Azula was staring at her own lightning crackling white-blue and mirror-shard jagged, wreathing him as he moved his hands in, down, up, out and all he needed to do was point it straight back at her unwavering smile like any sane person would—
The lightning cracked against the ceiling. A smoldering splinter of the rafters fell and hit his shoulder. He rubbed the spot, biting back curses that were creative even by his standards. "Goodbye, Azula."
She could hear him stomping all the way out of her wing. Always so dramatic. The ceiling was a bit on fire; she let out a breath, and it turned cold, but the sunlight through the shattered window was warm against her back.
He never tried to kill her, even when she handed him the weapons herself. Didn't poison her food or water, didn't send in enough cannon-fodder guards to simply overwhelm her. Didn't leave her, except when father banished him or locked him away.
He was a hopeless fool. She would have to keep him close for his own protection, even after she plucked back her throne. Agni knew what he'd do without her; probably run off and join the Avatar, or something equally ridiculous.
As long as Zuko knew where the real power was, he could keep his little crown. It pleased her, for now.
Azula seems to me, at her core, a girl who is just as unshakably loyal as her brother, but who expects—demands—that loyalty to be returned. And she cracks a little inside every time someone falls short of her ridiculously high standards (like "be more loyal to me than your baby brother who's been kidnapped by rebels"). And mommy dearest started her off with a rather big crack, and Zuzu's banishment left her alone with an abusive father for three years starting when she was ten or eleven, and friendly Uncle Iroh thinks a fourteen-year-old girl is crazy and needs to go down. Girl has no support system and solid proof her face will get burned off if she screws up. She was going to have a breakdown sooner or later; Towards-the-Sun!Azula now needs to figure out how to pick herself up in the wake of learning she's-not-has-never-been-can't-ever-be perfect.
Also: she totally could have done worse to show!Zuko after Ba Sing Se than keep her word, bring him home with full honors, restore his position in the line of succession, and take him on a soul-baring beach vacation. Sure there were a few ominous threats tossed in here and there, but that's just the Azula flavoring! How else will the Dum-Dum know she doesn't-care? It's like Toph's arm punches, only more nightmare inducing, and with the potential to land you in literal fire.
My goal is to write an Azula "redemption" arc that doesn't dull how utterly terrifying she is for all those around her. Redemption in quotations because the girl is not evil, she just needs hugs and a psychologist.
Chapter 6: Dignity
This chapter brought to you by Poor Impulse Control®! Poor Impulse Control®: "I should be building a chapter buffer, but I'd rather be a comment whore instead!"
Seriously, great comments. Love you all so much.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zuko couldn’t stomp all the way back to the Avatar's group. It wasn’t something a Fire Lord would do, it wasn’t dignified and it would take too much energy, anyway. The guards who always trailed him were doing that side-eyeing they did, like they were going to suggest that he take a break. They were getting really bold about that, they'd never be so impertinent with Ozai or Azula. But he wasn’t Ozai or Azula. And when yesterday's meeting with General Daichi dissolved into a No you can't, Yes I can on the subject of marching troops straight through beaten-but-not-secured Goaling, and what part of don't provoke the Earth Kingdom further did the general not understand, his Guard Captain had cleared her throat and escorted the general from the room without his orders. He had let her presumption slide in favor of… just resting his head in his hands. For awhile.
The blanket over his shoulders when he'd woken back up had been crossing a line, though. Especially when none of them would admit to putting it there.
Zuko was going somewhere with these thoughts. He’d just… lean against this wall until he remembered where.
The courtyard was just around the corner, and the Water Tribe peasant was loud.
"This is some kind of cruel Fire Nation torture."
"Just eat, Snoozles," Toph said.
His name was Snoozles? Zuko blinked. He did remember it starting with an 'S'...
"Toph, spit that out! You know it's poison. Delectably aromatic meaty poison. It's probably too spicy, anyway. To cover the poison."
"Man, poison is delicious."
"Should I tell them I'm a vegetarian?" Avatar Aang asked.
"What, so they can poison you too?"
"I mean, I wouldn't want to be left out…"
Zuko pushed off from the wall and rounded the corner. "It's not poisoned. And I'll… send for something vegetarian." He looked at one of his guards. The man nodded, and broke off to find a servant. Captain Izumi was very clearly not pleased with having one less of her people around for backup as they approached those who were threatening her Fire Lord earlier in the hour.
"That is completely unnecessary," Snoozles said, splitting a glare between Zuko and the Avatar. "We don't need— What happened to you?"
Zuko stopped rubbing his shoulder, and stood up a little straighter.
"Specifically, your hair. Not that I've been paying particular attention to your hair, but now you've got like twenty strands out of place and that's not artistic at all."
Zuko very self-consciously avoided touching his head. If it was really that bad, his guards would have said something. Probably. Scowling was the appropriate reaction, and Zuko employed it. The peasant scowled right back.
Their group was lounging by the bison, who apparently doubled as a sofa. The servants had brought them a simple lunch of picken stirfry over rice. Toph had demolished her bowl and reached for Snoozles', who made a sad noise of almost-protest as he watched it leave him. Uncle was politely picking at his. Katara and Aang looked mildly offended by their dishes, likely for very different reasons.
The bison was sniffing in his direction. Zuko took a small step away from the ten-ton airbending master who'd only seen him in times of high stress.
Uncle set down his chopsticks. "Are you all right, Fire Lord Zuko?"
Zuko stopped rubbing his shoulder. Again. "It's nothing."
The Dragon of the West had been cultivating his Dubious Look while traveling with these children. Either that, or Zuko's immunity to it had worn off.
"I just hit my shoulder. With the ceiling."
"What," Snoozles said.
"That's… not important," Zuko flushed. "Shall we continue?"
The bison was looking at him. It seemed like it wanted to come after him, but it was covered in children.
Zuko retreated inside and sat. He was relieved when they followed. The bison's head was too big to fit in the window; it was just a giant slowly blinking eye.
"Would you like for Miss Katara to heal you?" Uncle asked mildly, and Zuko dropped his hand away from his shoulder.
The waterbender's glare was anything but mild, and promised that his shoulder wouldn't hurt ever again by the time she was done healing him.
"...Thank you for your generous offer," Zuko thoroughly declined.
"Zuko," Uncle said. He'd taken the seat nearest him this time, and now he reached for one of the hands Zuko had been hiding up the long sleeves of his robes. Zuko started to pull away but the bison distracted him with a whuff of grass-smelling breath that filled the room and put at least five more strands out of place on his head, and now Uncle had his sleeve pushed back and could see the way his hand shook, could see the burns on his fingertips. Zuko couldn’t redirect Azula's lightning fully anymore. It had been getting worse, every time, and he wasn’t sure if she knew and he was afraid to tell her, because there were two very different ways she could react to learning how close she was coming to really hurting him.
"Zuko," Uncle said, like he still cared.
Zuko snatched his hand back. "It's not the first time I've redirected lightning, Uncle."
Which was news to the retired general. Most unwelcome news, by the dark look on his face. "Azula?"
Zuko turned his head to the side. And then suddenly Uncle was there and Uncle was hugging him, and Zuko's shoulder hurt from how stiff he was holding it, and the Avatar and his friends were right there watching—
Uncle loosened his grip. Just a little. He turned a smile towards his companions. "May I have a moment alone with my nephew?"
Nephew. Zuko tried really hard, he did, but he was sinking into Uncle's arms and Uncle's shirt before he was even sure they were gone. And the guards were right in the doorway, and this was not how a Fire Lord should act, but he was just—
"I'm so sorry, Uncle, I'm sorry, I betrayed you and I was going to make it right but I screwed that up, too—"
Some of the words that came blubbering out made sense but most of them didn't and the ones that did weren't even in order, this was humiliating. Uncle just held him tighter even though Zuko was getting his shirt all wet and gross, even though he was a mess of a human being, even though Uncle could hate him forever and it still wouldn't be long enough.
One of his guards slid the door softly shut. Uncle kept holding him, and didn't hate him.
I think we all needed this chapter. Writing Uncle cold-shouldering Zuko was physically painful, in the same way writing Azula in a room with anything living fills me with deep anxiety.
Katara had been keeping track of water sources since before they touched down. There was a small pond in a hidden courtyard to the east, just at the edge of her range to feel but not touch; closer, there were water cisterns and basins and irrigation channels for the gardens, and the same pipes that were aboard the Fire Navy ship where she'd nursed Aang back to health, metal-wrapped water just waiting to be burst with a bit of help from Toph. There was the water skin at her hip. There were the dozen other skins hidden under their supplies on Appa, the ones Aang didn't want her to bring but got outvoted on.
Katara had been keeping track of water sources, which made it very hard to ignore new ones. But she was trying her hardest and scowliest, because—
"Is anyone else fundamentally disturbed that Zuko, sorry, Fire Lord Zuko is in there sobbing gross sobby tears?" her brother eloquently put it.
"Not just Zuko," Toph grinned, digging her feet into the stone tiles of the courtyard. One of the guards frowned at the property damage.
"Thank you, Toph, for that skillfully painted mental image of Iroh and Fire Lord Angry Pants embracing their inner waterbenders."
A servant stepped into the courtyard, and bowed. The Fire Nation bowed a lot. "A vegetarian lunch for the Avatar?" He made it sound like a question. Frankly, Katara was questioning why they were here, too. Besides Iroh, Aang, and Toph voting her and Sokka's objections down. At least they’d agreed to wait until Sokka's leg was out of the cast.
"That's me!" Aang had been sitting back against Appa; now he hopped to his feet with a puff of air. "I'm the Avatar." This did not seem to reassure the servant. There was a lot more bowing, and also holding a steaming bowl of presumably vegetarian stirfry out like a spirit offering.
Good. They should be scared. Aang already defeated their real leader, and probably their strongest firebender, too. Ozai was rotting under General Fong's gentle care, powerless in every definition of the word. It took the Avatar State to beat him, but Zuko? Katara could handle Zuko herself.
"Thanks!" Aang took the bowl and bowed back with a smile, Fire Nation style. The servant blinked. And returned the smile, hesitantly.
"Aang," Sokka said. "Aang, you are not eating that. That was specially prepared for the Avatar, that is what we call specially made poison Aang— Aang!"
"Hey, give that back!"
"This is for world peace, Aang!" Sokka held the bowl out of reach, presumably also for world peace.
The servant's smile faltered. He gave himself a little shake, then turned to the silver-haired guard who'd been following Zuko around like an avenging hawk-lion. "The Fire Lord did not attend lunch with his councilors. The chef respectfully sends this to him, if His Majesty is not too busy."
Another bowl was offered, this time to the guard. She took it with a quick glance to the closed doors behind her, a slight slumping of shoulders, and a polite nod. "The Fire Lord appreciates your concern."
"...I'll try again in an hour," the servant said.
They bowed to each other. So. Much. Bowing. Then the servant left, after a bow towards the closed door and a bow towards their group and another bow and a few steps backwards as he re-entered the palace. (There was just a brief pause in that last one as he spotted the cracked pavement around Toph's toes. Then a deeper bow, which hid his frown.)
"Hey," Sokka said. "So that one was specially made for your glorious Fire Lord right? And he's probably not going to eat it before it gets all cold and gross and that servant guy needs to bring a new one anyway, right? Which he's already planning to do, and I mean, we wouldn't want to interrupt uncle-nephew cry time for something as trivial as delicious non-poisonous stirfry, right?"
The silver-haired woman looked very close to dumping the bowl on him. Instead she held it out with one hand and a bow.
Bows could be sarcastic, Katara learned. Sokka seemed to miss this lesson as he grabbed the food like a starving coyote-vulture and started shoveling it down. He still had Aang's lunch tucked protectively under one arm.
"Sokka," Aang whined.
"Fo' 'orld 'eace," Sokka managed to say through the disgusting half-chewed spitty mess in his mouth, eww. "Oww oww spicy oww—" His eyes watered. This did not stop him from taking another bite.
"Hey, guard lady." Toph said. "Is Aang's meal poisoned?"
The guard gave the blind girl a look. Then visibly realized that she was giving a blind girl a look. Then answered, in the most grudging monotone Katara had ever heard: "Not to my knowledge."
" 'Hat ish not a 'no'," Sokka pointed out. Swallowed. "And anyway, we know how good the Fire Nation is at lying. Zuko fooled Katara under Ba Sing Se, and his sister is a purple platypus-bear. This guard is probably, what, a yellow catagator?"
The guard had gone back to standing at perfect attention, impassively staring just above their heads. Katara really couldn’t blame her. Which was… not a sentence she generally applied to Fire Nation citizens, outside of Iroh and certain oppressed villagers.
Toph tilted her head, wiggled her toes, and busted up another few inches of royal property. A grin spread over her face. "D'awww, platypus nephew just fell asleep on Uncle's shoulder. And"—another wiggle—"I think Uncle's arm is going numb but he doesn't want to move it. Like that time after the comet when Sokka curled up and complained about his broken leg and how heroes should get the girl but all he got was a missing moon girlfriend."
"Girlfriends," Sokka corrected. "Those are two different people and/or celestial bodies. And that was a private discussion! A private, manly discussion! That you should not have been— hey!"
Aang airburst himself to Appa's head, already eating his re-stolen lunch. But he took the time to chew and swallow before speaking. "To be fair, tent walls are really thin. I think we all heard that one. And… sorry about Suki. Hey, maybe Zuko knows where she is! Or he can ask Azula."
The thought of being in Azula's line of sight brought the usual shudder-pause over their group.
"Gotta admit," Toph said finally, "I am not seeing the evil angry assistant-Avatar-slaying prince. Fire Lord Cuddles is not living up to the hype."
"Please, Toph," Sokka said. "Please. Don't call him that. I will owe you an unspecified favor if you do not call him that."
"Done deal, Snoozles. You are going to regret that so hard." Toph wiggled her toes in the direction of the room, and d'awwed again. Obnoxiously. Which was an adjective that was redundant when speaking of Toph.
Katara uncapped her waterskin, and streamed out a small orb. The guards all watched her warily, the silver-haired one most of all, but she just… needed to freeze something into tiny jagged spikes right now, and it was probably best if that thing wasn't alive.
"Toph," she said. She kept her voice low, so only their group could hear. "I know you only met him once, and he was almost being helpful. But you know we haven't been lying about the rest. He's dangerous, and he can lie just as well as his sister. Maybe even better; at least she comes off as a sociopath. I had every reason to hate him in those catacombs, and I did, but he… he managed to convince me he was this good, confused person who just needed a chance. He knows exactly how to play on your emotions, how to talk and act like someone who wants to be on your side if you would only let him. And then as soon as your guard is lowered, as soon as he's in position to get what he wants, he strikes."
And you spent the next few minutes praying that your best friend's heartbeat was just too weak to hear over your own, not that it was gone. The next few hours healing while on bison-back, your hands numb from wind and water but this wasn't about you and you couldn’t stop. The next few weeks caring for a coma patient, and Sokka said he'd handle the… the clean ups but it was two in the morning and Sokka was asleep and you couldn’t leave Aang laying in that.
Toph dug her toes in deeper, and frowned.
Sokka finished his bowl. Set it down, and leaned back against Appa. He spoke quietly, too. "This whole time, we thought Azula was the smart one. But think about it: she went from the favored princess to… what? We heard she got crowned, and she's almost definitely the one who was tossing around lightning just then, which means he's got her what, locked up in some room in the palace while he rules? And Zuko, he went from banished prince, woe is me, have you seen my honor to Fire Lord. In the space of a summer. When we know Ozai doesn't like him. It hurts my brain to say this, because Zuko, but it sounds like we're dealing with a master manipulator here. We know it runs in the family. If you just consider results and ignore the Zuko-ness, it looks like we got played. Hard. ...And Aang, if you drop dead after lunch, I'm going to go kick Hei Bai's statue until it sends me back to the Spirit World so I can say I told you so. And then I'm going to find your next incarnation, and name it Baby I-Told-You-So. And then—"
"I get it, Sokka," Aang snapped, setting down his bowl. "I don't think I'm that hungry, anyway." He got so quiet, she almost couldn’t hear what he said next. "Guys. If we can't trust him, how can we trust him?"
Which was a silly question on the surface, but… not really.
Zuko was the leader of the Fire Nation. If they couldn’t trust him, they couldn’t trust the Fire Nation, even if he miraculously decided to end the war and—and take Aang as his best friend, and embrace vegetarianism, and go around not kicking puppy-kittens.
Katara saw a simple solution to the trust problem. Several if she started feeling creative, but two stood out. General Fong had a few empty cells next to Ozai's. And the ocean had a few trenches where a firebender would never be found.
She was not losing Aang. Not again.
Toph flopped back on the ground, her feet still rooted. As cavalier as she acted, Katara knew she was nervous about Iroh. They weren't in that room to protect him if something went wrong, and there was no way he'd guard against his precious nephew.
"All I'm saying," the earthbender started, "is if I didn't have your guys' stories, I'd think Zuko was the most easily read person I've ever met. And what I'm reading is a lot of sleep deprivation and a little probably-lightning-induced should-really-see-a-healer arrhythmia, but not a whole lot of cackle-while-the-world-burns. And Uncle's happier than I've ever felt him. So maybe let's give Fire Lord Needs-a-Nap a chance, okay?"
"Okay," Sokka said, with the least agreement possible. "...Could you just not give him a name, Toph?"
"Not enough unspecified favors in the world, Snoozles."
"Yeah," Aang said. "A chance. I mean, he's probably had a really stressful summer—"
"Aang," Sokka said, "do not even start on how Fire Lord Zuko had a more stressful summer than us—"
"You're right, Toph," Katara said sweetly, freezing and refreezing the water between her hands. "Everyone deserves a chance."
She'd already given Zuko his.
The temptation to poison Sokka when he ate that "specifically for the Fire Lord" lunch was nearly overwhelming, but I couldn't think of anyone who'd both be willing and in position to poison Zuko at this point in the story. Also it would have really derailed these intro chapters. Have I mentioned this is the prologue, guys? 'Cause we are definitely still in the prologue, you will know when we hit Book One. So. Sokka gets a pass on ironic meal-related stomach pains.
Zuko lived in this room now. The Avatar and his group were still in the courtyard outside, and they knew he'd been crying and probably figured out that he'd taken a nap, and Uncle hadn't even bothered to wake him up and now the sun was close to setting and Zuko was never leaving this room again. Not while they were outside. This, he realized, was probably how Azula felt. Minus the tear tracks, he couldn’t picture Azula crying.
...Even her breakdowns were better than his.
"Zuko," Uncle said. "If you do not want to continue this meeting today, I am sure that Avatar Aang—"
Which prompted a reflexive, "I'm fine, Uncle," which for some reason made Uncle smile, and somehow that made Zuko think maybe he really would be fine.
But he was still never leaving this room. Which was going to make it difficult to wash his face, or get un-rumpled robes, or fix his hair and why was he even paranoid about that. Stupid Snoozles.
Also, he was really hungry. Which was weird, since he definitely remembered to eat lunch.
Uncle slid the door just slightly open and conveyed a few quiet requests to Captain Izumi. Which was how a small wash basin and a new over robe (and a non-snotty shirt for Uncle) were shortly delivered to the room. Carried past the Avatar's group.
Zuko dropped his head on the table. He'd gotten enough sleep to feel feelings again. They were awful.
He and Uncle looked presentable by the time another servant arrived with a tray of dinner for them. He ate it, even though his stomach was already twisting. And then they were finished, and another servant was hanging lanterns in the room as the sun set outside, and there was no excuse to put this off any longer.
So he sat at the table's head again, for the third time today, and slipped on a glower that felt just safe enough, and allowed Uncle to welcome the Avatar's group back in.
They all took a seat this time, even Snoozles. Since the bison's furry side was blocking the last of the sunset from the window, Zuko supposed they didn't have to be paranoid about its location. A servant entered with fresh tea, and very pointedly kept it out of the Fire Lord's reach until he'd poured for everyone. They waited for the man to leave. Then they began. (Again.)
"Please forgive the interruptions, Avatar Aang," Zuko bowed slightly, ruler to foreign dignitary.
"Ah, no problem?" the Avatar replied, scratching the back of his head.
"Are we all just going to pretend the gross sobby tears didn't happen?" Snoozles asked. And looked around. "Okay, I guess we are. Carry on— oww! Toph, no arm punching in front of the enemy!"
Zuko decided that a glower was far too conservative. This meeting deserved a scowl. "Remind me again why you're all here?"
They all looked at the Av—at Avatar Aang. The small monk, why did he have to be so young, jumped a little where he sat. "We… we want to end the war."
Which was completely and utterly baffling to Zuko, because the war was already over, and it probably showed on his face. The monk kept talking, a babble of words about the four nations and restoring balance and harmony to the elements, and Zuko sat waiting for a good place to work in a reply but eventually he realized he was just going to have to interrupt. He held up a stalling hand (Avatar Aang flinched, Katara set a thumb on the cap of her waterskin, Snoozle's hand twitched towards his sword. Uncle sipped tea. Toph picked something out from between her toes, and flicked it over her shoulder.)
"I agree." Zuko's shoulders tightened under the force of their combined stares. He reached habitually for one of the maps that had always been on hand in the past few weeks, but there weren't any in this room. Crossed his hands in his lap, and prayed that the heat he was feeling in his face was not a blush, or that they didn't notice, or that the earthbender would obligingly sink him into the ground now. "I've already ordered the troop withdrawals. It will take more time to fully organize things, but the Fire Nation will not be taking further aggressive actions. We've sent messages, have they... not gotten through?"
"The generals have been throwing them out," Snoozles, was that seriously his name? Now that Zuko was a little more awake he didn't think so, it was Sokka or Soaka or something, but those were also stupid and Snoozles was the only thing anyone had actually called him by— Crap. Crap crap, he was still talking, refocus. "—So the next hawk, I made sure to get there first myself, and I was all like you know I'm a council advisor, just give it to me, I'll trot it right on over for you, which is how we finally got to read one. Gotta say, it sounded a little too good to be true. 'This is completely BS propaganda to delay you from pressing your advantage and give us time to rebuild our flying death fleet' levels of too-good-to-be-true. I wanted to just throw it out too, but certain air nomads who will remain unnamed thought it might be for real and you deserved to be heard out. So here we are. Hearing you out."
"...Thanks?" Zuko said. This was not the right answer, based on the silence that engulfed the table.
Toph broke it with a roll of her too-pale eyes—wait, was she blind? "So, Fire Lord Hot Pants."
"What did you—?"
"Focus. Are you serious about ending the war?"
"No more fighting?"
"No. Well, yes, but there have been attacks on the withdrawing troops. We're not trying to start fights but I'm not going to let—"
"Got it. Say something false."
"A lie, Sparky. You know what those are?"
"I… yes? Why— Sparky?" Zuko had always known he was bad at reading people, but when he looked around the table expecting expressions of let's make fun of the teenage ruler and instead found ones of intense concentration (and an encouraging nod from Uncle), he realized he should just give up on trying entirely, people didn't make sense. He pinched the bridge of his nose, and squeezed his eyes shut. They were still waiting when he opened them. "...I'm the Avatar?"
"Keep going," Toph said.
"And, uh, I fly around. On my bison. And do Avatar things." Was he supposed to just talk until she said to stop? "...Balance and harmony, yay?"
The earthbender went from serious face to a small avalanche made of laughter.
"Well that was horrifying," Snoozles said.
"I don't know," the actual Avatar said, with a certain amount of friendly pity, "I thought it was pretty good. I do fly around and do Avatar things."
"He's not lying about ending the war," the earthbender said, when she could talk again. "And I can tell."
...She could? Zuko stared at her.
There was a porcelain clatter in front of him. When he looked down, his tea was sloshing in its cup and the Water Tribe peasant was far-too-casually sipping from his own. And Uncle was sighing his Nephew We Talked About This sigh (which Zuko cringed slightly at, even though it wasn’t directed at him), and the waterbender was dragging her hand down her face, and the Avatar just looked embarrassed.
"Did you just switch our cups?" Zuko asked, slowly. "Why wou—? Do you seriously think I'd poison you?"
"I don't seriously think you wouldn't," Snoozles replied, just as slowly. "Also I was thirsty. Your lunch was really spicy, and Katara won't let me drink from her combat waterskins, which is apparently now every waterskin."
Which was about the time Zuko lost his temper. He'd had just enough sleep for yelling to seem worth it again. "If I was going to poison anyone here, it would be the Avatar, not his non-bending hanger-on!"
"Also true," Toph helpfully verified.
"Perhaps we should all calm down, and enjoy our tea before it cools," Uncle suggested.
"I do not have time for this." Zuko’s head was in his hands and he didn't remember putting it there. But while his eyes were shut, maybe he could just take another quick nap, the last one had felt really good— No. No, sitting up straight again. Even better: standing. "Thank you for visiting. It's been a pleasure."
"Lie," the earthbender sang.
Do not shout at the blind girl, do not. "I'm sure you can find your way back to the Earth Kingdom from here."
The earthbender wiggled her hand. "Kind of half-and-half. You really think we can't find our way back?"
"I've seen this group try to navigate," Zuko growled. "You got better when you added a blind girl."
Snoozles snarled. The blind girl in question threw back her head and laughed again. And Uncle's lips… twitched. Almost smiled, before he looked away. Which was the only reason Zuko sat back down.
There was a lot of angry, awkward tea-sipping.
"So… the war is really over? The Fire Nation is going to stop attacking?" Avatar Aang asked, like Zuko hadn't already said exactly that. "That's… That's great. I was—well, I didn't know what to expect when we heard you were Fire Lord, but if you want to stop the war and we want to stop the war then we can just work together and make sure everyone else stops, too! I'll talk to the Earth King—well, once we find him, but it can't be that hard to find a man with a bear—"
"—but until then I can talk to the generals and make sure they don't attack your troops as they retreat—"
It wasn’t a retreat, it was a withdrawal. And back up, the Earth King was missing? With a bear? What kind of bear? Wait, was this the stupid bear that got a birthday party? The bear that had probably been eating better than him and Uncle in Ba Sing Se? That bear?
"—And if you need help with the colonies, maybe we can ask the Water Tribes to lend extra ships—"
Zuko was still a little hung up on the bear, but he shook himself out of it. "Stop. Just… stop. What were you saying about the colonies?"
Avatar Aang stared down at his hands as his thumbs chased each other in twiddling circles. "I know I kind of… broke a few of your ships. At the North Pole."
Sent over a thousand people into graves of steel and salt, yes.
"So you might not have enough for the evacuation. And I'm sure everyone would be happier if this got done as quickly as possible. Katara and Sokka know the man who leads the Southern Water Tribe's fleet, he's a friend of their dad. I'm sure he'd help."
"Help evacuate the colonies," Zuko repeated, and the tea between his hands was steaming again like it was fresh from the pot, or just about to boil.
"Yeah." Avatar Aang smiled. Everyone else at the table was distinctly not smiling, maybe not even breathing, as they looked from the Avatar to Zuko and back again.
"We won't need help with that," Zuko said, "because we won't be doing it."
"Truth," the earthbender said.
Trivia: the bulk of this chapter was written as the original chapter four. Then I realized I really needed to set up Azula's situation, and we might as well get in one uncomplicated uncle-nephew hug before the plot hit.
Chapter 9: Disagreement
"The colonies are Fire Nation territory," Zuko said, a little slowly, because he wasn’t sure why they didn’t understand this.
"You mean Earth Kingdom territory," Toph said, and she wasn’t laughing anymore.
And Zuko was… baffled again. Worse than before, when the Avatar was going on and on about ending a war that Zuko had already ended two months ago. This was just… he didn’t know what this was. It was like they were talking about flowers but one of them was colorblind.
"Who do you think won the war?" he asked, with a pit in his stomach where their answer would go.
"Who do you think?" Snoozles said. "Last I checked, we've got your leader locked up, not the other way around."
"Ozai's alive?" That pit was dark and gaping, and maybe he shouldn't have eaten dinner after all.
The peasant preened. "Alive and powerless. Completely at our mercy. So you'd better—"
"What kind of precautions are you taking?" Zuko wasn't breathing right, he'd never breathed this wrong before, it hurt. "Does the Earth Kingdom have freezer cells?" He was on the brink of offering them one when he realized what a terrible idea that was, the other nations did not need that technology. "You can make due with steel cuffs, as long as they're thick enough that they'd burn his wrists before he could melt his way through—" And he didn't think about how he learned that, he didn't, his wrists didn't even scar. (Nothing could really hurt him if it didn’t leave a scar.)
"Woah. Hold up. Don't you like your dad? Like, dedicated years of your life to pleasing him at great and frankly suicidal personal risk, with not even an 'adequate job, son' and an indifferent pat on the back to keep you going?"
Zuko was glad his breathing was so wrong, it just sounded like he was choking instead of laughing. "I'm done doing that."
"Now that you have your throne," the waterbender said. "Is that all family counts for, in the Fire Nation?"
The way she said that made him stiffen. Worse, it made Uncle stare into his tea without drinking it. Zuko took in a deliberate breath, and another, and another, until a curl of flame between his teeth let him know that even though his chest still ached his breathing was right again.
Then he took another few breaths, to make sure he didn’t light anything on fire.
"There seems to be a misunderstanding, here." This sounded very diplomatic. He hoped. "I'm ending the war because it's the right thing to do—"
The waterbender snorted. This was Zuko's diplomatic scowl.
"—But we didn't lose. You beat one man. Won one battle against an untested new fleet. You didn't beat the Fire Nation. We can talk about terms for prisoner of war exchanges, and withdrawal of troops from contested areas, and even what exactly our final borders will be, but we're not going to talk about who won. Because you didn't."
"But…" the Avatar looked a little sick. And like he didn’t know how to finish that sentence. The earthbender was frowning in the general direction of his chest. The waterbender's hands were hidden out of sight under the table, along with her waterskin.
Uncle wasn't saying anything.
Snoozles held up a hand. It wasn’t for Zuko's benefit, so it must be for his group's. "Prisoners of war. What terms are we talking?"
"Um, well…" This was something Zuko should really discuss with his councilors, but it wasn’t like anyone was writing his words into a formal peace accord. "We want ours back. Obviously. And I… don't especially want to keep yours." He was terrible at using leverage, this was like when he tied Katara to a tree and just yelled at her instead of—of other things. Things he couldn't have done, not even to catch the Avatar, because having no honor was not the same as being honorless. "They'll probably have to swear an oath not to raise arms against the Fire Nation again, and we'll have to keep the leaders until—"
"Until what?" there was something almost hopeful in Snoozles' face that was gone now, closed off.
"Until we're sure they're not going to go right back to rallying people against us," Zuko snapped. "I'm sorry, was a term-free release of everyone else not good enough for you? Am I supposed to be an idiot, on top of generous? I know the Avatar hit me through a few walls, but I'm not brain damaged. Captured leaders will remain in the Fire Nation."
Zuko heard a cork pop. This didn’t immediately have meaning to him, except that his body knew that sound from half a year of fighting them and he was already dodging to the side before—
The waterbender was completely rigid. Uncle's hand was on her shoulder, holding her in place.
So Zuko just threw himself on the floor for nothing, it what just happened. Her brother was smirking at him. She… wasn't. He picked himself back up, straightened his robes, and ran fingers through his non-artistic hair.
"I think," Uncle said, "we are all a little tired. Perhaps we can continue these discussions in the morning, Fire Lord Zuko? If we may be so bold as to presume upon your hospitality for another day."
"Yeah," Zuko said. "...Yeah. I'll have rooms arranged."
"Bison-adjacent rooms," the peasant was quick to clarify.
"Fine," Zuko snapped, with only a hint of snarl. "Did you bring enough supplies to avoid poisoning, or should I ask the servants to arrange for your meals, as well?"
"We'll take the meals, Sparky," Toph said, before anyone else in her party could decline.
"Good." Zuko stood, keeping his feet rooted and his eyes mostly on the waterbender, whose eyes hadn’t left him since she stepped off that bison this morning. "I—why would you even think you'd won? Can somebody please explain that?"
He shouldn't sound this close to begging. But. How did their minds even work.
"Well we beat Ozai," the Avatar said, "and then the troops started... withdrawing…"
Because Zuko ordered them to, the Avatar seems to be belatedly realizing. Which was related to Ozai's defeat, but not as much as they wanted it to be.
"Goodnight, Zuko," Uncle said, and Zuko realized he was staying with them. Zuko… didn’t know why he'd ever thought otherwise. "May I have your blessings to visit the Fire Temple in the morning? It has been quite some time since I have been home. Well, home and unfettered from other obligations." He chuckled like his imprisonment was a joke.
Zuko swallowed thickly, and refrained from rubbing his own wrists. "Of course, Uncle. You're… you're welcome here. Always. I'll make sure the guards know you have full liberties of the palace." He turned a scowl on the rest of the group. "Please make sure your companions remain in their assigned quarters."
He opened and closed the door for himself, which always left his guards and any nearby servants looking mildly affronted.
"Huh," the Water Tribe peasant said, too loud even through the closed door. "That will be useful. So I'm nominating Iroh as our palace spy, any objections?"
Zuko sighed, and went to his room. The minutes for every meeting he'd missed today and all the ones he would never have had time to attend anyway were stacked neatly on his desk. General Daichi still wanted to march through Gaoling.
At least Zuko got in that nap earlier. This was going to be a long night.
Chapter 10: In Which Iroh Reacquaints Himself With the Palace and its Staff
Iroh was up with the sunrise. There was nothing quite like the sun in Caldera—the way it climbed up the slopes of their mountain unseen, whispering power at the edge of his chi. Then the swift moment it crested the volcano's rim and spilled out over the whole of the city—
This was the sun of his childhood, the sun he had missed during those six hundred days in the flat expanses around Ba Sing Se. Curious that years later, he would learn that being inside those walls gave the sun a rather similar effect. Similar, but not the same, in a city divided by walls. Too many shadows, both literal and figurative, in very different proportions than Caldera's.
Iroh folded his blanket neatly, and stepped over his student. Avatar Aang should have risen with the dawn, but while he could firebend with great proficiency, Iroh would not yet call him a fire bender. The sprawled limbs of Sokka proved a slightly more difficult ground to pick his way across, but Iroh made it to the door without waking either of them.
Judging by the very lady-like snores coming from the adjoining room, Miss Bei Fong and Katara were still getting their beauty rest, as well.
Several guards were positioned in the courtyard, as they had been all night. The one directly outside his door was already frowning at him. No, that would be an insult to her professionalism: better to say she was observing him with a distinct lack of smile.
"Captain Izumi," he inclined his head.
"Prince Iroh." Her bow was perfect, and perfectly perfunctory: exactly the right angle, held for exactly the right amount of time. Iroh would ask what he had done to offend the senior guard, but he suspected the list was rather too long to go over in one sitting.
Iroh set his steps towards the Fire Temple. The gray-haired captain fell into step behind him.
He took the long way, of course.
"Miss Huian! I thought it was the sun that woke me, but truly it was your radiant beauty."
The servant bowed, laughing behind a sleeve. "Good morning, Prince Iroh. We were warned you were back in the palace."
"Warned?" he feigned a gasp. "Warnings are for rabbit-deer, running from the hunter. The tame mink-cat has nothing to fear. Ah, but perhaps you are not tame..."
"Perhaps the Honored Prince wishes to confer with my Lord Husband on this topic?"
"Ah, perhaps not." Iroh coughed into his hand. "Is my nephew awake?"
The woman looked flustered, in a way his flirting had not achieved. She darted a glance over her shoulder, not towards the Fire Lord's rooms, but the rooms of the crown prince. "Not yet, Prince Iroh. Is the matter urgent…?"
"Only an old man's desire to have breakfast with his favorite nephew. He must be sleeping very well, if he can rest past the dawn."
"Just so." The servant's smile flickered. "May I do anything for you, Prince Iroh?"
"Only tell your Lord Husband to take great care of any mink-cats he should be so fortunate to find, tame or otherwise."
The servant hid another smile, and bowed; he inclined his head in return. Captain Izumi followed as he left.
Iroh was not looking for anyone in particular. But he was looking for a certain type of person. The training grounds at dawn proved excellent for this.
"General Daichi," he greeted, as the man took a break between sets.
"General Iroh," the man's bow was, perhaps, a bit too low for General-to-General. Even for General-to-Prince. But then, he had served under Iroh at Gaipan and Luoyang, when they were both new officers. That sort of thing is not easily forgotten, either in word or bows.
"It is good to see you well. I heard there was an unexpected number of talented benders in Gaoling."
The General scoffed. "Street rabble. Some kind of underground fighting ring that thought patriotism could substitute for discipline. They surprised us the first time; we made sure there wasn't a second. The worst part was listening to them boast."
"I can imagine," Iroh chuckled, thinking of a certain young traveling companion.
"Of course, now the Fire Lord's convinced there's a whole den of badgermoles under those streets just waiting waiting to boil up. Won't even let me march my men back through a city they've already conquered." Daichi always had been the sort of officer who needed to vent before his fires ran too hot.
"It sounds as if he is concerned for your people."
"He's a General doing a Staff Sergeant's job. That kid needs to learn to delegate before he snuffs his own flame." General Daichi seemed to recall, very suddenly, that he was speaking to that kid's uncle. "No disrespect intended, Gen—Prince Iroh."
"General will be quite fine, General," Iroh winked. "My nephew has had some issues with delegation in the past. Is he getting very far behind in his work?"
" No," Daichi growled. And began gesticulating, with a few flames for emphasis. "He's at every meeting, he reads the Agni-cursed minutes for every other meeting, he comes to the next meeting with records and annotated notes, he has the archivists and the clerks researching every idea anyone says that he thinks has merit, and if we, his trusted advisors say it then he assumes it has merit even when it's that idiot admiral and his spirit tales—"
"I have heard the Fire Lord has, perhaps, not been getting much sleep."
Daichi was tugging at his goatee. Iroh was mildly charmed to see that the grey-haired General still had the nervous habits he'd picked on him for as a young lieutenant.
"And why does he trust us at all? We're his father's advisors, not his. Waido and Kwang-su and I were on that council that got him challenged to the Koh-forsaken Agni Kai, but he just sits across the table every day and doesn't execute any of us."
The General had quite a bit of venting saved up, Iroh inferred.
"If he's smart, he'll clear court before we turn on him. Install his own advisors. People he can actually trust, not—not us."
"Would you turn on him, General?" Iroh asked, as mildly as such a question could be asked.
Daichi blinked like he'd been slapped. "Fuck no."
"Perhaps he is right to trust you, then."
The General looked thoroughly baffled by this concept. He literally threw up his hands. "But he shouldn't!"
It was, perhaps, the most reassuring thing Iroh had seen since watching all of his children return from the day of the comet, with only a broken leg and a few burns between them.
"I'm not even sure he does," Daichi said, much more quietly. "He just… doesn't care, as long as what we're doing is in the interests of the nation."
They exchanged lighter pleasantries after that. Brief ones; Daichi was very intent on punching more fire around before the day's meetings began.
Iroh bowed, General-to-General, and left the man to do so. Captain Izumi followed, all the way to the kitchens.
"Don't you even start," the chef barked.
Iroh retracted his hands back into his sleeves, and positioned himself somewhat farther away from the delicious morning dishes already lining up on the counter. "Ah, Master Jae-Jin. I see you are as generous as ever."
The chef aimed a cleaver his way, more as a gesture than a threat. Presumably. "You've got a reason for being here. Otherwise you wouldn't be bothering my staff in the middle of breakfast."
"Of course. I just wished to make sure you knew that all the Avatar's meals should be—"
"Vegetarian. I dug the Air Nomad recipes out of the archives yesterday. If you've got a point you'd better get to it."
Iroh winced at the death of subtly, but acquiesced. "I hear my nephew is favoring work over sleep. Is he eating?"
"More than he did when they first dragged him out. I'll get the meat back on him."
"It was very unfortunate, how—"
"You're about to dance around the point." The meat cleaver struck the cutting board, and did what meat cleavers do. The tuna-pus looked just a little more dead. "Don't."
Iroh fought the urge to wince again. "Dragged out of where, exactly?"
The chef paused. Narrowed his eyes. "Don't hear much Fire Nation politics off wherever traitors hide, do you?"
Wincing, it seemed, was Iroh's new hobby. "Not as such."
"Prison. Now get out of my kitchen. And if I even think you're here to hurt the Fire Lord, poison's the best you'll get."
"Thank you for your concern for my nephew," Iroh replied, with a humble bow.
"Your nephew." The cleaver took off the tuna-pus' head, with somewhat more aggression than culinary ends demanded. "You been earning that, Uncle Iroh? His Majesty has been the whole summer without an ally in this roach-snake nest. Before the comet and after. Way I hear it told, his uncle choose the Avatar over him. Before the comet. And after."
Iroh was almost certain that a tuna-pus did not need to be gutted twice, particularly not so… thoroughly, but he did not think it wise to mention this to the chef. With another bow—much more silently, this time—Iroh left. Captain Izumi followed, exactly the appropriate amount of steps behind him.
"I know what you're doing, you old dragon," the guard captain spoke. "Stop snooping and talk to your nephew."
"Would he answer?" Iroh asked, without turning around.
The captain replied very neatly by saying nothing at all.
"Why was Zuko in prison?" This received a similar reply. "Was it house arrest?" He looked back for this question, and caught a single murderous glance directed his way.
"This isn't the way to the Fire Temple."
Neither were their other stops, but she had not commented on them.
"It's the way to the Fire Lord's rooms. I had thought to see if Zuko is awake now." Iroh smiled. "Unless, perhaps, there is something I should know? The Fire Lord did give me full use of the palace, I am quite sure he would not mind—"
"Princess Azula is in the Fire Lord's suite."
"We heard she was crowned," Iroh said. "She and my brother sent out quite a few hawks: Fire Lord Azula, and Phoenix King Ozai. Did Zuko challenge her for the throne? ...Did the Fire Sages revoke her claim? ...Did she step aside for him?" Though he turned to watch closely, her expression remained the same for all these options. "I am simply trying to understand the situation, Captain Izumi. You can see how this would look quite strange to an outsider."
"Are you an outsider?" she snapped. Then she took in a deep meditative breath, and let it out. With her next breath came her default answer: "Ask the Fire Lord."
"Which one?" Iroh smiled benignly. The guard captain continued her meditative breaths. It was, perhaps, a good time to actually visit the Fire Temple.
Captain Izumi followed him inside. She did not, however, follow him into the family shrine. Iroh knelt, and looked for the first time in three years upon the ashes of his wife and son.
"I'm home," he said. "It has been a very eventful summer. Ah, but you would want me to start further back than that. Zuko—you remember your cousin Zuko—did… something foolish. Something that I allowed him to do, to my regret. And I think I have continued to allow him and allow him, and it is only when I have left him to himself that he has found his way. But I am skipping to the end again…"
There was nothing quite like the sun in Caldera. He knew the angles of every shadow outside, simply by the feeling of it above this roof. Approximately thirteen degrees had passed by the time he'd given his dear wife and Lu Ten the basics of the situation; about an hour, in Earth Kingdom terms. They listened quite respectfully. He promised to visit again soon, presuming Sokka did not get them kicked from the Fire Nation today. He would tell them all about his unique young friends the next time. Lu Ten would have liked Toph. And he would have liked Katara.
(It was hard to picture Lu Ten as he would be now: a grown man, no doubt already married, and much too old to be flirting with pretty Water Tribe girls no matter how compatible their tempers. Then again, perhaps he would have taken after his father with regards to flirting...)
"I hope I am not interrupting, Prince Iroh," a man said. Though he already knew he was not, for he had timed his arrival in the alcove for the moment after Iroh had risen from his final bow to ancestors and god.
"Not at all, Sage Fujio."
The man was old—older than Captain Izumi, who had been a young guard in Azulon's court when Iroh had been running around leaving spark-marks on the shoji doors. When he had been an only child wishing foolishly for a little brother to play with (and, perhaps, to blame certain fires on). Sage Fujio had known Sozin. And what must that have been like, to be the moral counsel of the world's most effective murderer?
Sage Fujio was old. Too old to waste breath on small talk, he had once heard the man tell Ozai to his face, after Ozai was already Fire Lord. Iroh was surprised the man had lived to see the next Fire Lord crowned. This surprise was unrelated to his age.
"Prince Iroh," the sage said, "do you still support your nephew?"
This too the man had already known the answer too, because it was abundantly clear that Iroh's conversation had been between himself, the spirits of his family, and this man lurking in the shadows. The sage inclined his head, by the barest of acceptable margins.
"The boy needs a regent. Talk him into it, and take the role. You have our support."
"As I did when my father died?"
The sage stared down at Iroh, where he still knelt in front of the shrine. "If you had wanted the throne, you should have challenged for it. We cannot support those who will not support themselves."
For the fourth time that day, Iroh fought the urge to wince. "Why has a regent not been chosen already? Zuko is only sixteen."
"The age of majority for the royal family is fourteen."
"How—? Ah. Azula. Ozai changed the laws for her." This was not a question.
"It appears the Phoenix King did not wish for a regent to stand behind his daughter."
"Likely he intended that position for himself," Iroh agreed.
"The girl crumbled on her first day. The boy will follow, unless someone shares his burden. But we cannot force a regent on him unless he himself first changes the law. Convince him to do so."
"My nephew is stubborn, and independent. If he refuses?"
"Then do what is right for your country and your family, for the first time in your life. Take the throne, and let that boy sleep. A few years training as your heir and he might even survive this. We are running out of viable heirs, Prince Iroh; I do not want to break this one. He's… not his father. He's not you, either."
Yes, Iroh was very surprised that Sage Fujio had survived Ozai's reign. But then, his brother never had spent much time consulting with the spirits.
"You have our support," the sage repeated, and turned to leave. Their small talk was over.
"Why?" Iroh asked. "Some are saying I chose the Avatar over my own nephew. Would I make the sort of regent you want?" Or would the sages take the changed law, and place someone else besides Zuko?
"He still trusts you," Sage Fujio said. "You are, perhaps, the only one he trusts."
It was not a burden Iroh was ready to pick back up. Not when he had failed the boy for three years, and all the things he had not said had split them apart under Ba Sing Se. It was a city where he lost sons.
Zuko had apologized to him. Had welcomed him back into the palace, unquestioned and—aside from one unsmiling guard captain, who Iroh sincerely doubted was acting on her Fire Lord's orders—unrestricted. It was too much trust for a new ruler to have, particularly in an old man who'd earned his traitor posters. Iroh had never prepared Zuko for court, because the boy was never supposed to return. The Avatar was gone; and then he wasn't. Zuko was never to set foot in the Fire Nation again, never even to join his family's ashes in the shrine; now he was Fire Lord, and Iroh still did not know how.
Avatar Aang was very nearly a master of fire. It was time for Iroh to return to his family.
He bowed once more before the shrine, then left. Captain Izumi followed him back to the courtyard.
I really really wanted Captain Izumi to tell Iroh all about Ozai throwing lightning at his own son and then shoving him into a lightless cell to be forgotten. It was in my chapter notes. But Izumi took one look at that scene and was all "I don't discuss the Fire Lord's business," and I could not change her mind. Dammit Izumi, why you gotta have integrity?
Chapter 11: Trust (3)
That moment you realize you can't re-read a chapter you just wrote because you haven't actually written it yet. *sighs and smashes at the keyboard*
PS: The number in the title will make sense in a bit.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zuko woke up in a sunbeam, feeling cold. Why was the sun even over here? ...Because he'd slept in late and his servants hadn't woken him. Again.
He sat up with a sigh, blanket still tucked around his shoulders. Waking up late meant no time for meditation. That was… okay, it was fine. It wasn't like his inner fire was raging out of control since the eclipse. He wouldn't have time to stop by Azula's room either, though, and that meant she'd probably light something semi-important on fire by the end of the day. What was even left in her rooms to burn?
She'd find something. She always did.
What else? He could still have breakfast. He'd just order it into his first meeting; no one ever complained about food trays appearing, they just thanked him for his generosity and emptied the dessert plate before he had a chance to get there. What was his first meeting? He felt like he was forgetting something really important, like—
Like a bison landing in his courtyard yesterday. Like uncle, who hadn't said he'd forgiven him but hadn't shoved him away, and maybe that was good enough. Like the Avatar wanting their colonies just because. Also, apparently Toph could tell when he was lying? That would be more impressive if everyone couldn't tell when he was lying. But if it was a general skill, how much would it take to get her in his staff…? He probably shouldn't start the peace negotiations by poaching the Avatar's earthbender. Probably.
...Wait, had they taken her along because they'd assumed he'd be lying? No, of course not: they must have brought a blind twelve year old for her amazing fighting prowess.
Zuko knocked his head back against the bed stand. He briefly considered asking the servants for another few blankets, and just going back to sleep in a warm little bundle. But he wouldn't have gotten away with that when he was five, and he certainly couldn't now.
He settled on the next best thing: slipping out of bed so quietly that he could get dressed without anyone offering to assist him. He managed to get his hair done without stepping on a single creaky board between the wardrobe and the mirror, too. He'd done his own hair for three years: shaving a perfect diamond on choppy seas was a lot harder than tying up a basic topknot, he didn't know why the servants got so fussy when he did it on his own. Even if that one stupid strand always ended up coming lose. Putting in the crown was harder: if he didn't get it just right, it got all lop-sided and floppy, and then he got all cursy, and then—
"Are you awake, Your Majesty?"
—And then he got caught.
"Do you need any assistance dressing?"
The answer was always going to be no. Except for those super-formal robes, which had too many layers for any one man to keep track of. "...Just with my crown."
Lady Huian opened the door, bowed, shut the door. Somewhere in there, she managed to cast an eye over every minor wrinkle and marginally unstraight seam, and radiate disapproval at all of them without ever saying a word. She simply walked over, took the crown, and had it perfectly positioned with one stab of its pin. He'd didn't even have time to finish flushing.
"Your esteemed uncle was looking for you," she said. "He wished to know if you would have breakfast with him."
She smiled at him, which was when he realized he'd smiled first. "Yes, Your Majesty. He stopped by on his way to the Fire Temple."
"And you didn't wake me up?" Smile gone.
"He did not ask me too, Your Majesty. My impression was that he had other errands to attend to." She fussed with his robe collar, giving it a tug that had no visible effect but suddenly it felt completely different. Like everything fit just a little bit better. Before he could bat her hands away, she'd also evened his hems and re-knotted his belt so it didn't crease the fabric underneath. "I believe he's back in the courtyard by the guest rooms, if Your Majesty wishes to take breakfast there."
"Yes. That would be… yes." He tried not to twitch too much as she brushed invisible lint from his shoulders. "Please have food brought. For the Avatar's group as well, if you haven't already."
"At once, Your Majesty." She bowed, and opened the door, and very pointedly didn't stop bowing until he'd given up trying to out wait her and walked through it. She shut it behind him.
Captain Izumi was waiting for him outside. Zuko's shoulders slumped, just a little, as she fell into step behind him. Guarding him in a brightly lit hallway of his own palace, within sight of three other guards. He didn't address her, which meant she couldn't politely address him—
"Your Majesty. If I may have a word?"
But the senior captain had been wrangling Fire Lords before he was born.
"Yes, Captain Izumi?"
"With respect, sir, Prince Iroh should not be given full freedoms during his visit. His ' trip to the Fire Temple' took him to nearly every corner of the palace."
"You followed him." It wasn't a question; more of a sigh. "Did he do anything to warrant your suspicion, Captain?"
"He asked a lot of questions. About your circumstances, Your Majesty."
He would. Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose. "...I'm not hiding anything, Captain. And Uncle belongs here. You'll need to get used to him, if he stays." If. He… probably didn't want to. Zuko would understand, if he didn't. "Don't you have actual work to do?"
"That's what junior captains are for, Your Majesty." Captain Izumi never smirked, but she had a certain extra confident way of walking that served the same purpose. "If you'd like, I can show you how I organise my staff. I imagine delegation at the palace is somewhat different than on a navy ship."
"I… might take you up on that. When I get time. It must be nice having people you can trust."
Her stride lost its smirk.
"I didn't mean— I trust you, Captain Izumi."
He did. And so had Azulon, and Ozai, and Azula (Well. Maybe not Azula.) So would whoever came after him. But until… that happened, he trusted her. The palace guards were one of the few things he didn't have to worry about managing. And it didn't really matter if he still wasn't sure whether she'd ordered her guards to bring him up from the prison or they'd just done it, or whether her face had closed down when she first saw him because she was appalled by the state he was in or appalled at having an untrained ruler dropped on her. He just… wasn't going to ask. It didn't matter. If he went around not trusting everyone who'd spit at him when he was unwanted or banished or an outright traitor, there wouldn't be anyone left.
They were almost at the courtyard. Someone was firebending; the sound was distinctive, and something in him wanted to join in and feel what they must be feeling, the rush of fire that would actually make him warm and the ingrained movements that didn't take any thought and wouldn't get him killed if he messed up because it was just practice. The rest of him was already steeling for what he knew he'd find.
Uncle was training the Avatar.
(Not waiting to have breakfast with him.)
He stood and watched for only a moment. Long enough to see how effortlessly the monk moved; still the airbender grace, but with a solidness to it, a flow to it, a readiness to charge forward to it—his stances were all firebending, but the way he moved between them was a mix of all four styles that shouldn't work but did and made it look like they'd belonged together to begin with, that it was stupid to ever treat them as separate.
(They were practicing an advanced set, one that Zuko had only just started to learn before… before finding the Avatar. Another prodigy. How had Zuko ever thought he could be a worthy teacher for him? Of course it had to be Uncle.)
Zuko didn't interrupt them. He just skirted the outside of the veranda behind them, past the bison who was lumbering to its feet and looking at him really intently, into the room they'd used yesterday where a servant seemed to have been waiting for the express purpose of opening the door before the Fire Lord could. Zuko made a point of bowing his thanks, which seemed to leave the man even more chagrined than if he'd just let Zuko open it himself.
Then he ignored—tried to ignore—the wooshes of fire and occasional laughter and the sounds of the Avatar's other companions waking up. He opened his work folder, and… worked. Some of his councilors were going to join them today, and he needed to have at least some idea of what his own thoughts on the peace process were or he'd end up agreeing to research a dozen suggestions that he knew he was against but didn't feel comfortable turning down on the spot because they would make them sound so reasonable.
Outside, the Avatar laughed sheepishly. Uncle gently corrected him on some form.
(Zuko had never been good at firebending, never. It was good he woke up late so he didn't waste any time on it, it wasn't going to help him come up with plans to retrain excess troops for civilian jobs anyway, and what were they going to do about the factories at Aizuwakamatsu and Sendai? If they were cutting back on production of tanks then they didn't need both, but that was a lot of jobs that would be lost for civilians, did they need to retrain them too? And where was the money for this coming from, if they weren't getting payoffs from the smart Earth Kingdom kings who'd been funneling in please-attack-somewhere-else money for a hundred years?)
Captain Izumi cleared her throat in warning. This was the only reason he didn't jump when Uncle spoke.
"Good morning, Zuko. Did you sleep well?"
"Yeah," he said, focusing on the paper in front of him. "More than I should have."
"Would you care to join us? We are about to begin the Phoenix-Crane set."
...Zuko knew he knew that one, knew he was supposed to, knew Uncle considered him proficient in it, but he suddenly couldn't remember what the opening kata was. It had been awhile since he'd been able to meditate, and even longer since he'd gotten a chance to bend. And the last time he tried, still weak from prison, his chi had… not responded how it should.
(He was not going to let out pathetic weak puffs of flame next to the Avatar's firestreams, not going to prove in front of everyone-and-their-bison that the Avatar was a better firebender than the Fire Lord.)
"No thank you. I… have some things I need to catch up on. I ordered breakfast, if you wanted to eat together."
"What an excellent idea. I'll let the others know."
The others. Right. "...I should really get this done. Before we eat."
Uncle paused a moment more, his shadow in the doorway. Then he made one of those agreeable sounds of his that might mean I admire your work ethic nephew or you are making poor life choices right now nephew, but Zuko had never been able to tell them apart. Maybe because it had always been the second, and he'd just never realized it.
A small swarm of servants brought breakfast not long after. One of them put together a plate for him before he could even protest, either on the principle of the matter or on how did they expect him to eat all that. He wasn't that hungry. Was it physically possible to be that hungry?
Snoozles carefully watched what the servant put on his plate, then put twice as much of the same dishes on his own.
Another servant started to slip Zuko's work folder to the side. A slammed elbow caught it, and a glare sent the servant bow-scuttling away. It was patently obvious that none of the Avatar's group knew what to say to him. He needed that folder, so he had something to stare at, so they had the excuse that everyone wanted not to talk to him at all. ...Though he was going to watch Snoozles out of the corner of his eye. His bad one, so it was a little blurry but less obvious.
"Appa looks really lonely, so…" the Avatar edged towards the door, and fled. The waterbender and her brother followed without even pretending to have an excuse.
Uncle stayed. So did the earthbender; she sat down next to Zuko at the head of the table, distinctly ignoring the lack of another seat cushion or the existence of personal space.
"Is there a reason you're smirking, Sparky?"
"I'm not. And you're blind."
"Uh-huh. Your heartbeat picked up when Snoozles grabbed his food, and you've got this hum to your chi."
She was smiling like she already knew there was a joke. Like she wouldn't spoil the punchline, she just wanted in. And it wasn't like he was trying to poison the stupid peasant, he hadn't even done anything, Snoozles had done it to himself.
"...He's eating the same things I am."
"The things the servant thought I'd like."
"Does Water Tribe cuisine have ghost-pepper-chillies? Because that's what's on the fire-salmon."
She cocked her head to the side. A grin slipped over her face. "And here I was starting to think you weren't evil."
He didn't know quite how to take that. But… it didn't seem to be a bad thing. And he didn't really mind that she was sitting so close, it was just weird that she'd want to.
"Hey, did I put any of that stuff on my plate?"
He helped her find safer options, as outside the peasant made a sort of gurgling scream. Zuko did not laugh, he absolutely did not, in the interests of international relations he confined himself to a snort. But Toph and Uncle and the Avatar did, and when the waterbender rolled her eyes it wasn't at him.
"No, I am not healing your tongue."
"But Katara—" the peasant whined.
And before Zuko quite knew how it happened, he'd actually eaten all his food. And maybe he didn't quite need to ask the servants to pass his compliments to the chef, particularly for the excellent fire-salmon, but it made Toph snicker. And Uncle smiled behind his teacup, Zuko was almost certain he did.
"Send my compliments, too!" the Avatar shouted, from his bison-adjacent seat in the courtyard. "That was amazing. I haven't had coconut-melon tofu in a hundred years!"
Somehow Zuko was taking seconds, too. The tuna-pus sashimi was extremely finely sliced, but really good. Not as chewy as usual. Almost… tenderized?
"You should try some of this, Uncle," he said.
Uncle… winced? "Tuna-pus does not agree with me, I'm afraid."
"...Oh. I'll, ah, talk to the chef—"
"I am quite certain the chef already knows."
This wasn't exactly the conversation he'd wanted to have with Uncle. He didn't know what he'd wanted to say, but… not this.
But he hadn't pictured the entire Avatar circus (minus one lemur) being within hearing distance. Maybe Uncle hadn't either. Maybe that was why he was being so watching-thoughtful without actually saying anything.
"Sparky, grab me more of those bean things."
"Bean things. Grab."
Zuko served-not-grabbed her another helping of snap-edamame before one of the servants could beat him to it.
The peasant stomped into the room and sat down. On Zuko's other side. Which was a lot less comfortable to have in his personal bubble than the twelve-year-old non-combatant who didn't seem to hate him. Zuko leaned back. Just a little. And found the twelve-year-old's elbow in his spine.
"Hmm," Snoozles said, leaning in even closer.
"Can I… help you?"
" Hmm. You are not lighting me on fire yet."
"...Did you want me to?"
"I thought it was just a fluke yesterday, with the complete sleep deprivation and the trying-to-poison-us-instead-of-fight-us—"
"I wasn't trying to—!"
"But you're still doing it today, and it's creepy. How did becoming the worst person on the planet, aka Fire Lord, mellow you out? More importantly, is that spicy?"
Zuko didn't even know where to start on that, especially when the peasant had just answered his did you want me to light you on fire question with a resounding yes please. He grit his teeth, for world peace. "No. It's not spicy; it's not seasoned at all, it's just fish-alopod. Would you like some?"
"Yeah, sure." And the peasant stole a piece off his plate. And put it in his mouth. Using his fingers, the barbarian. And then he talked with his mouth full. "I notice I am still not on fire."
"You just need to ask," Zuko snapped.
"No thanks," Snoozles said, and did it again.
Zuko snatched away his plate, and shoveled tuna-pus into his mouth. He set the empty plate down with a pointed ceramic click.
A servant promptly refilled it, and set it back between them.
"Heh," the peasant smirked. His fingers twitched.
He got half a slice, and a near impalement on Zuko's chopsticks.
The servant refilled the plate again. "It's good to see you eating, Your Majesty," she smiled serenely. "And it's so nice to have a poison taster again."
She bowed, and retreated to the corner of the room she'd been waiting in.
Zuko felt the blush creeping up his face. At least the peasant didn't look much better. They both pointedly ignored the plate, even when Snoozles'—it had definitely been Snoozles'—stomach growled.
"You know," the peasant said, making a token attempt to keep his voice down for possibly the first time in his life, "your servants are a little less servant-y than I'd expected. They act like that with your dad or Blue Fire?"
"Yeah, Crazy Blue."
Zuko winced, but let that go. It wasn't like he knew. "No. This is just… with me." Because they knew he was barely a ruler at all. Un-banishing half the staff on his first day as Fire Lord was not a good way to instill a proper sense of fear.
"Huh." He stole the tuna-pus plate so casually, it was like grabbing food was just an unconscious reflex. "I think they like you."
If that's what audacious disrespect meant, then Snoozles must be his biggest fan. Zuko snatched the plate back, and tried to make this conversation a little less ridiculous.
"The prisoners. Is there—you looked—" He couldn't exactly say the peasant looked upset over it, yesterday. He wasn't the one trying to be rude. "Are there certain people in particular you're concerned about?"
Snoozles narrowed his eyes. "Oh, so you can specifically target them? Get yourself some hostages?"
"No! Just… do you even know if they're alive?" He was pretty sure that cut deeper than any insult he'd actually tried to give. "I'm not trying to threaten you!" And that came out louder than he meant, and now the Avatar and the waterbender were looking, and the bison was getting to its feet. "Just… if you get me a list, I can have the clerks look into it. Make sure they're okay."
"Hmm. Hmm. Hmm."
The peasant's hand suddenly snapped out, and Zuko was hunkered over the plate before he realized the actual target. Snoozles grabbed paper straight from his work folder, and Zuko's favorite brush and he wasn't even holding it right, there was no elegance in the characters he drew (and no formal schooling in the Southern Water Tribe, so it was actually impressive he wasn't outright illiterate but that wasn't the point—)
"Hey!" Zuko made a grab for the paper, which left his plate undefended from little blind girls, how did she even know where it was, and why weren't the servants or the guards helping. He snatched it back from her grabby fingers and rage-ate his fourth helping of tuna-pus, and started to remember what being full felt like.
The peasant was scrawling a short list. A short list that was going to make his clerks wish he'd left them Azula-banished.
Everyone captured from the Southern Water Tribe ever
Northern too I guess
Why not the Kyoshi Warriors while you're at it
All invasion troops from the Day of Black Sun
The peasant looked immensely pleased with himself.
"Any—" Bad manners were contagious. Zuko shut his mouth and chewed and swallowed, then tried that again, which somewhat ruined the sarcasm. "Anyone else?"
"That'll do," the peasant said. "For starters."
Zuko folded the paper and held it out to the servant. "Have the clerks prepare two lists. Names and status should be delivered to Ambassador Snoozles. Names and locations for those still alive should be delivered to my office."
She bowed, and left.
"What." the peasant said. " What?"
Zuko scowled. "If you seriously expect me to give you a list of prisons to break into—"
"Not that. Well that too, but— What?"
Zuko realized he'd made a horrible mistake. It came with its own creeping feeling of dread tingling up his fingertips. Like the moment before Azula threw lightning, or the instant he caught the indescribable glee on the earthbender's face.
"You don't know his name. You've been trying to figure it out from listening to us but you don't know his—" She lunged across the table, across Zuko's lap, and slapped a hand over the peasant's mouth. "Do not tell him. If you wreck this for me, I will wreck you. Are we clear, Ambassador Snoozles? That goes double for you, Sugar Queen. And I will train you into the ground, Twinkletoes."
Out in the courtyard, the rest of their group had never stopped paying attention. Zuko should have never hoped they would.
"Ambassador…" the Avatar started.
"...Snoozles?" the waterbender finished.
The blind girl lowered her hand, and sat back up.
Her victim's shoulders were slumped in defeat. He stared balefully at Zuko. "Are you just really bad with names, or something?"
Toph grinned. "Hey, what are the rest of us called?"
"Um. Toph, Katara. Avatar Aang." The bison groaned, and took an alarming two steps closer to the room that he knew it couldn't fit in but that wouldn't stop wind, and he'd never been clear on how much speech the Avatar's spirit animal could understand. "Uh… Appa?"
"How about our lemur?" Toph's grin was alarming. "He's in the Earth Kingdom right now, but you remember him, right? The Team Avatar MVP. Everyone knows his name."
...It was a fruit. Ume? Nashi? "Momo!" Too excited. He slapped a hand over his mouth. Which looked idiotic, so he dropped it to his lap. And just... resigned himself to blushing. Forever.
"The Fire Lord seems pretty good at names to me, Ambassador Snoozles."
"...You're never not going to call me that, are you."
"A brilliant deduction, Ambassador Snoozles."
Zuko shifted his gaze between them all. Nobody… nobody was actually mad. There was some more yelling, but it was friendly yelling. Which wasn't the kind Zuko was used to. He didn't smile, he didn't, he was very practiced at not smiling. But he relaxed a little, and his heartbeat slowed back down to pre-he'd-messed-up levels, and then the blind girl laid off the peasant for just long enough to smirk at him.
"Not a thing, Sparky." She reached out and stole his half-full rice bowl. He stole it back, and shoveled the last grains into his mouth.
The servant was back from handing off not-Snoozles' note, and the servant smiled, and the servant refilled his bowl like she was trying to encourage this behavior. They'd dress him and open every door he so much as glanced at, but they wouldn't defend his breakfast from vulture-wolf children?
"Could you please bring more food before one of them chews my hand off?" Zuko snapped.
"At once, Your Majesty."
"Man," Toph said. "Your people really do like you."
"...Are you metaphorically blind, too?"
It wasn't a joke. She laughed anyway.
This chapter was almost from Sokka's POV.
Almost-Titled: Zuko Needs To Eat Something So Sokka Knows What's Not Poisoned
Almost-Subtitled: No Seriously, Stop Pushing the Food Around and Eat, This Is Driving Sokka Insane
Ultimately that is all you really need to know of Sokka's POV.
Chapter 12: Trust (2)
These chapters are supposed to be short. SHORT, Toph. Like YOU. DAMMIT TOPH.
Edit August 2021: Rewrote the Toph-touches-Zuko's-scar part of this chapter. I have it on good authority (AKA: my actually blind/low vision commenters) that the whole face-groping thing is very much a sighted-person fixation, not a thing blind people actually do. It is, in fact, one of those "what the hell, sighted people" tropes that really shouldn't exist. Edited out the face-touching; please keep the excellent reviews (and constructive criticisms) coming, Toph is amazing and I want to write her well. Of all fandoms, Avatar is a place blind readers should see themselves reflected. <3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Toph met Sparky yesterday. Today, they were friends. Maybe tomorrow she'd let him know.
Eh, maybe not.
Point was: Toph liked Sparky. Which was weird for a lot of reasons, up to and including 'the last time she was in this palace she'd come to kill his dad, but ended up fighting his baby sister instead.' Made her wonder what he'd been up to that day. But not enough to ask, because he didn't seem the type to answer unless she got him good and threatened-with-boulders first. Probably should wait until this peace thing wasn't so fragile. Or at least, until she got him somewhere his guards couldn't hear him yelp.
Because really. The kind of person who called becoming Fire Lord 'not that exciting' and meant it, while the people around him were having minor heart attacks just thinking about it, was the kind of person who had stories. And she was definitely going to get her grubby mitts on them, sooner or later. Probably after he realized they were friends, too.
So yeah, she liked the guy who'd made her friends miserable for months. Liked him, because she got him. What she didn't get was why everyone else... didn't. Sighted people were always pretty constrained in what they saw—letting things like walls and complete darkness stop them, pssh—but Zuko was right there and the sun wasn't as warm as it had been, but it was definitely still up. So why wasn't anyone else seeing him?
"Fine! Go through the city!" Sparky growled, over in the corner of the courtyard where one of his advisors had cornered him as soon as they took a break from negotiations. "But I expect your troops to behave, General Daichi. If I hear one report..."
"You have my word of honor, Your Majesty." The guy's weight shifted really far forward; a bow. His voice was steady, boring-ish, but his heartbeat had just gone from medium-fast to humming-gazelle for a few beats. Judging by context, Toph was betting that was an internal fist pump of 'Finally.'
Sparky stomped back to the empty meeting room and his pile of rustling papers. Which made him the only one not out in the courtyard hobnobbing, or at least grabbing things off the food trays for dinner. As soon as he was away from everyone else and focused on something else, his heartbeat smoothed out and slowed down. Sparky, Toph was learning, needed to always be doing something. Downtime stressed him out almost as bad as Katara did. Toph didn't know exactly what was going on there—it was a facial expression thing, and she didn't get those—but she had a feeling Sugar Queen had been shooting him looks.
Toph didn't know what made a look intimidating, but whatever it was, Katara had it. So did Toph, which was a sign that all was well with the universe. She could make Twinkletoes stop chasing butterflies and get back to practice just by lifting an eyebrow; she could make Snoozles gulp so loud she heard it through his feet with the right grin. She was smaller than the others, but she was scarier.
Odd thing was, whatever look she had, it didn't work on Sparky.
"What city?" she asked. She hadn't tried to sneak up on him, but she hadn't tried not to, either. He twitched, and his heart did that really unhealthy off-beat thing she'd been picking up on since her feet touched the courtyard stones yesterday. She hadn't heard something like that since Aang was freshly zapped and comatose. She'd tried to talk about it loud enough that his guards would hear, but none of them seemed to be doing anything about it, and Katara didn't seem in the healing mood. So Toph did the only thing she could do right now: she grinned the same grin that made Momo fly screeching of to Appa, and made Uncle pause mid-tea-sip.
Sparky paused, too. And relaxed.
It was bizarre, but she kind of liked it. People hadn't been this calm around her since they thought she was a helpless blind kid shuttered up in her parent's home.
"Gaoling," he answered. She liked his voice: a lot of people had generic ones, voices that would blend in with a crowd. Sparky's was gravel-rough, like ground just waiting to get kicked up and punched at someone's face. Which was a compliment. There was probably some fire-and-smoke metaphor that would suit him better, but eh.
"Gaoling, huh." She sat down next to him. Kept on the grin, and tossed in crossed arms. "Hey. Guess where I'm from."
His weighted shifted forward; less on the ground, more on the table. His elbows knocked against wood, softly. If that wasn't a head-in-hands with bonus repressed groan, she didn't know what was.
"Good guess," Toph said.
"I didn't say anything."
"Didn't you, though?" She almost gave him enough time to reply, because it had become abundantly clear from the first time Sokka insulted him that Sparky didn't get rhetorical questions. As hilarious as it would be to see how deep he would dig this hole, she took pity, and walked over whatever he was about to say. "So you're sending troops. Through my hometown."
She pushed him (...verbally), just a little harder. If there was one thing she'd learned in twenty-four hours with this guy, it was that his fire just needed a little stirring to flare. "You're sending troops through my hometown."
"I don't want to!" There he went. Weight back on his butt—sitting up straight again—and the little wooshes of air and micro shifts in weight as he gestured way too wildly to be socially acceptable. "But I've looked at the maps, and General Daichi's right —it's either the city, or the caves, or the mountain passes, or the swamp. I can't risk my people in caves or passes, not with the Earth Army rallying behind them. And that swamp is just— no."
"So you're sending troops. Through my hometown."
Weight all the way forward and a single thunk. She reached out a hand to confirm it and, yep, that was him slamming his head on the table and just kind of leaving it there. She gave him a pat-pat.
...Whoa, nice hair.
Meanwhile, every guard in what she was going to assume was 'sight' tensed where they stood. Heart rates shot from base rate to the brink of action. Because her hand was on their Fire Lord's head, and she'd broken a few bones when she'd come through here on the day of the eclipse, and the guards reacted to her grin like normal people.
"I tried," Sparky said, mostly to the table. That nice voice of his was all muffled. "I couldn't find another route, not without sending them through more dangerous territories. And I can't… I can't do that. They aren't going to fight, they're just going to… march through. Nobody should be hurt. Umm, nobody else. This time. Unless they fight back, which they probably won't, because they already did… last time. And. It didn't work?"
Her parents had been visiting her dad's brother-he-didn't-really-like over in Jinhae when the fighting started, inspecting their newest warehouses. They were safe, which made it safe for Toph to feel a little bit amused by this instead of a lot a bit of rage. The rage was still there, sure, because all the servants she'd grown up trying to run away from had been in town, and all the guys from the Earth Rumble who were her personal punching bags, not the Fire Nation's —but. But Sparky hadn't been on the throne when all that went down. She had a rule about only punching people for what they'd done. Or when she liked them a lot, and their guards were looking the other way, which his stubbornly weren't.
"Thanks for not keeping us as a colony, I guess." She patted him one more time, just to prove she could. (And made a note to talk her dad into importing whatever Sparky used for shampoo. There were middle-aged women and more than a few gents in the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se who would pay a fortune to have hair half that silky. The colonies, too, if they marketed it as the Fire Lord's own stash.)
...And okay, she was taking her hand off the Fire Lord for real now. His guards relaxed again, if just barely. Weird thing was, he didn't care either way. Mostly. He'd kind of tensed with the first pat, like he'd expected a hit . And then he'd… 'given up' seemed a little dramatic, but it was the phrase that came to mind. There was this way his heart beat—when Uncle hesitated around him, when Aang instinctively stayed out of grab-the-Avatar range, when Katara popped her water cork under the table just to watch him jump. An uptick in speed, then one of those purposeful firebender breaths, and then it just… leveled back out. But not in a good way. More of a he'd expected to get hit, but he hadn't tried to dodge her hand kind of way.
Toph really hoped she was reading that wrong, but hope was more Sugar Queen's thing. So was asking what was wrong. Toph didn't talk, she got things done.
"Are you done guilt tripping? Because I'm pretty sure your servants are going to force-feed you if you don't go grab some food."
His weight shifted back to sitting, and there was the brisk silk rustle of him straightening out his robes. She had a feeling he was giving her a look. Judging by how all her friends reacted to him, Uncle included, his looks were the best. Too bad for him she'd been born immune.
"Sparky, go grab some food so I can steal off your plate. Or are you going to leave the little blind girl to paw her way through that whole buffet trying to find something that won't burn her face off?"
That got a reaction. The way his heart started hiccuping was painful just to listen to. She didn't get it, which meant either she'd missed something or it was a sighted person thing.
"...Blind. Right," he said, like he was talking to himself. And he didn't quite calm back down, but at least Toph didn't think she had to earthbend Katara over here right now and make her heal him. "I'll, uh. I'll go get something for you."
There was at least one nearby servant who heard that, because they started walking just a hair too fast to be polite, all the way across the courtyard. They managed to have two plates ready before their Fire Lord could even get there. And, of course, insisted on carrying said plates back to the room for him. Sparky was left standing by the food platters, being rather firmly warded off by another servant who was asking him if she could Get something else for you, Your Majesty?
Poor guy wasn't allowed to serve himself. Toph remembered that particular joy, from twelve-years-minus-the-last-few-months as a Bei Fong.
Sparky grumbled a no, and then kind of stood there, acting like if he stayed long enough they'd let him have freedom and choices. That wasn't how being rich worked.
"Could you not get all buddy-buddy with Fire Lord No-Concessions?" said Sokka, who'd come over as soon as he'd seen the Fire Lord's plate undefended.
"Why don't you leave the nicknames to me, Ambassador Snoozles. And do you really think the food is poisoned?"
"It's more the principle of the matter," he said, and she could hear him chewing. Snoozles had many good points, none of which Toph would ever admit to, but his eating habits weren't one of them. Toph had ditched a lot of her rich-girl etiquette lessons, but not sounding like a komodo-rhino chewing cud was one she'd kept. That noise was just… ugh. Snoozles kept talking, which at least helped cover some of the sound. "There's just something really satisfying in stealing Zuko's food. Also in stealing the Fire Lord's food. And apparently these are both the same person now, which is still fundamentally upsetting to me, so I'm going to take my petty revenge where I— oww spicy oww."
Sparky was across the courtyard. His feet were pointed towards them, and he was probably watching them, but he wasn't coming back to the room. His heartbeat and breathing were doing that he'd-given-up thing again. It was better than the needed-imminent-healing thing, but also… not.
Toph turned her palm up, and flicked a wrist. A pebble from the courtyard obligingly decided to not be in the courtyard anymore.
"Oww!" Sokka said, for reasons unrelated to spice levels. "What was that for?"
"Go get your own food, Ambassador."
"Are you seriously taking his side?"
"I am seriously thinking that stealing the Fire Lord's food is not helping. Do you want peace?"
"He's not giving us peace. He's giving us ultimatums. Keeping all the colonies? Building more strongholds in the Earth Kingdom, along the shiny new Fire Nation border that, oh right, they get to pick?"
"It's the first day, Ambassador Snoozles."
"The first day. And every day he can drag this out is another day in the Fire Nation's favor. He's consolidating his hold on the land they already have, and he's hoping we're too stupid to attack before he's got whatever crazy politics are going on here sorted out, and probably rebuilt their airship fleet, and oh hey built strongholds in the Earth Kingdom. Which is now part Fire Nation. What part of this sounds like peace, Toph? If we let them have toe-holds, they're going to toe all over us! Even if he's completely sincere—and seriously, do we need to get your feet checked? —then whatever evil little children he leaves behind to inherit are just going to restart the war in a few decades, from an even stronger position. That's not what we fought for. ...And now I'm picturing Zuko-children. Which implies Zuko-sex. And do you think you could just go ahead and hit me with a boulder now, I do not need that mental— oww! I wasn't serious!"
It had only been another pebble. Baby. If he talked less, maybe he wouldn't have the most easily targeted head in their group.
Still. Sokka wasn't stupid, even if he was great at acting the part. He'd… made some good points. He'd also kept his voice low, and the guards and the servants and the old guy advisors and even the rest of their Gaang weren't reacting to anything he'd said. But Sparky had really good hearing, apparently. Really good. Almost-as-good-as-hers good. Either that, or he felt about three times heavier on his feet for reasons completely unrelated to this conversation, despite the fact that he hadn't started talking to anyone else. And nobody else had started trying to talk to him, or even really stepped closer.
"All I'm saying," Sokka said, chewing on Sparky's food again, "is I have always been in favor of Katara's plan. The one with the ocean trenches, specifically."
He was only half joking, and Toph didn't think the joke half was the killing Sparky part. And… they'd talked about this back before they left, when Uncle and Aang were very not-in-the-same-building. Because she and Katara and Sokka, they hadn't been expecting Aang to come back from his part of the comet fight with Ozai still breathing. And yeah, killing people was terrible, and no one should force kids like them to do things like that—but what did Aang think they'd been doing, up in the airship fleet? Why did he get to stay all clean but they had to—
And Ozai. Why did he get to live, when all those low-level soldiers, the guys just steering the ships or working in the engine rooms, the ones whose heartbeats had been so scared and their shouts had sounded so young, why'd they have to die? Was it only royalty that got special no-kill attention from the Avatar? She loved Twinkletoes, he was like the flighty loveable annoying awful amazing brother she'd never wanted but suddenly had, but—but he could be such an airbender, and knowing someone's name, being able to put a face and a history to them, didn't make them more worthy of living. A lot less worthy, in Ozai's case.
So it hadn't seemed too crazy to her when Katara and Sokka had pulled her aside, and asked if she'd be up for doing what needed doing on this trip, if it… needed doing. Because they couldn't just keep putting Fire Lords in prison, someone was going to come along and break them out, Ozai was still a problem and he was going to keep being a problem until Aang let the man be executed. And Zuko was his dad's angry-violent son, the one who'd been first in line to drag a twelve-year-old pacifist off to face lifetime imprisonment and probably maiming in the Fire Nation, and he'd attacked any place that even looked like it had Aang in it with no regard for civilians, and sure Iroh had told them about how he'd gotten that scar but even if he hypothetically still cared about people and Ozai hadn't burned it out of him, it was Fire Nation people he cared about. Which was not exactly a good thing for the whole balance and harmony, yay thing. So yeah. She'd been in. If… if. And Fire Lord Zuko was making it really easy, with how close he kept letting her get. Letting all of them get, even Katara, even though he might just save them all the ethical dilemma and have a heart attack from mere proximity to her.
Toph hadn't really met Sparky, back when she agreed to… to that. And now he was standing over there listening to Sokka joke about sinking him in the sea, and his heart rate was slowing. Like he just expected it, like this was something he understood, like it was nothing to argue over. There was something really, really wrong with that. With him.
She didn't think it was the kind of wrong that needed killing.
"I think he's really trying, Sokka," she said. Because he and Zuko both needed to hear it.
Sokka paused to actually think. He always did, when she used his real name. That was why she saved it for special occasions.
"...Yeah, well. If he actually wants this to work, he needs to try harder."
Sparky turned away, and his breath hitched, and he laughed. Just the one laugh. Which the servant by the food didn't seem to know what to do with, because she couldn't hear what he was laughing about.
"Can I please just make my own plate?" Sparky asked. "I don't need help."
And wasn't that just the worst lie ever, in every single area except picking out his own dinner. Maybe there, too—it was hard to judge weights that light from this distance, but she didn't think he was putting nearly as much food on that plate as the one the servants had made for him. The one Snoozles was so helpfully eating, and while the servants had liked that little bait-Sparky-into-eating game they'd played at lunch, she wouldn't be surprised if Sokka's food did end up poisoned if he tried this again.
Zuko finished grabbing enough food to starve a kitten-bunny, and just kept… standing there. Kind of poking at things, giving that poor servant false hope that he was going to take more. Toph thought he was staying away because of Sokka, but then Sokka finished his one-plate conquest of the Fire Nation and went off to save Katara from some old guy. Or save some old guy from Katara. And Zuko… kept standing over there.
He really liked his eavesdropping, didn't he.
Uncle was in a circle with three of Zuko's advisors. One of them was the let's-march-through-Gaoling guy, and she was pretty sure the other two had been introduced as generals, as well. Which made sense, because Uncle was one too. A Fire Nation General. And the way they were talking and laughing, these guys were probably war buddies of his. And Toph realized something she'd always known but didn't like to think about, that Uncle had killed people. Her people. Probably a lot more than anyone else here. The Dragon of the West had been good at his job, and those guys laughing with him… they all remembered that, because it really hadn't been that long since the siege of Ba Sing Se. There was respect in their voices, in the way they deferred the conversation to any story he started, in the way their bodies slanted more towards him than to anyone else in the circle. They liked him. And there stood Fire Lord Zuko, far enough away that they probably thought he couldn't hear them, and Sparky's heart rate was up again and he was taking those deep breaths that both he and Uncle used. Uncle used them to meditate, but Sparky… Sparky just used them. All the time. Like he needed them just to get by. He'd felt the same way yesterday when Azula had lightninged something and they'd almost attacked him; he felt the same way whenever one of his servants or his guards or his advisors got too close. Or her: he'd felt that way when she patted his head.
And Toph was starting to figure out that that was what trust felt like in him: that trust and trying not to panic had become the same thing for Sparky, somehow, and he trusted Uncle the most of everyone here but he still… needed those breaths. He stood there poking at the food platters for another moment, another breath. Then he turned away from Uncle reacquainting himself with the court, fitting with them more naturally than Sparky did, and he made the choice not to eavesdrop on them. Which was the most trust she thought it was physically possible for him to give. He walked back towards her, and she could tell by the nervous uptick in his heart when he couldn't hear them anymore. But she still could. A little.
Uncle clearly knew exactly how good his nephew's hearing was, because it wasn't until Zuko walked away that the old general steered all that talking and laughing to serious politics. And… and Toph, for the first time ever, wanted to hit him with a rock. Because Sparky was trusting him not to do that. And yeah, all the talk she could make out seemed to be for Sparky's benefit, but there was an undertone to the others' voices and stances like maybe they appreciated having an older royal back in court. Bei Fongs were just up-jumped merchants, but it didn't take a proper noble to know that was dangerous.
Sparky sat back down. A little further from her than she'd sat from him, which she quickly scooted over to fix. This was her personal space, not his. He'd learn.
And she grinned, upping it to levels that could make even Appa shuffle his feet when he looked at her. Sparky let out a breath, and she was pretty sure that fabric rustle was a relaxed shoulder slump, and seriously, were his survival instincts so bad they'd wrapped back around the other side? Because Toph was scary. She knew she was.
"...Do you not like the food? I'm sure the servants would love to get you something else." A little bitter there, Sparky?
She'd forgotten she'd had a plate, actually. Not that she'd admit it. "Just waiting for you."
So they ate together. Or at least, Toph ate. She was hearing a lot more paper rustling than chewing from Sparky.
"What are the the penalties for force-feeding the Fire Lord?" Toph asked. "Hypothetically."
"Sorry. I just… I have to get this organized. There's a lot of things I need the clerks to research before we meet again tomorrow. Like some of Sn—of, uh. Of the Water Tribe Ambassador's suggestions."
Since Snoozle's suggestions had primarily been on where Sparky could shove it, Toph wasn't really sure what research that required. She gave him that unblinking blind girl stare that seemed to freak people out so much. He either wasn't looking, though (and seriously, what was with sighted people and only being able to look in front of them?), or he was as weird about that look as he was about everything else. Toph took a grudging bite of something fishy, and—
And realized maybe the servants hadn't liked her stealing Sparky's food at lunch, even if it had just been a game to get him eating, because she was pretty sure this was that fire-salmon with extra fire-sauce that had gotten Snoozles earlier.
The words that came out of her mouth were appropriate for an Earth Rumble. Not so much for the daughter of a Bei Fong.
"...Huh." Sparky said.
"What? Did I burn your virgin ears?" Apparently Toph's growly voice didn't scare him anymore than her look.
"I've heard worse," he said finally, and a little smugly. And though she didn't know what a smirk looked like, she sure knew what one sounded like. "I think I said worse, when I was your age. Uncle, ah… Uncle yelled at the crew for that. A lot."
Oh yeah; sailor at thirteen. She'd forgotten what Fire Father of the Year had done to him.
It hit her with a jolt: she'd forgotten what the Fire Lord had done to him. Uncle had told them about the Agni Kai and the scar, and she'd… she'd joked about faces burning off right before she sent him to get food. Because she'd forgotten something that no one else having a conversation with him ever would. Sometimes, very rarely, being blind sucked.
She should probably apologize.
Toph leaned over the table, making sure her elbows ended up right on top of that paper stack of his. "So I've been wondering why people suck so hard at reading you. Do you just have a really good mahjong face?"
"Or, what, are you wearing a mask?"
"I… no?" And that was a not-right-now blip in his heartbeat and twitch of his arm like the one Snoozles did when he was reaching for his sword. And wasn't that interesting. Something to follow up on later. For now:
"So what, does the scar just make you super scary?" Oh boy, that indignant whoosh of fabric as he straightened up was a yes. "Well you don't scare me."
"You're blind." His voice was half-way between a snarl and a laugh, but not the good kind of laugh.
"How big of a scar are we even talking, here? Because I've got some awesome ones. Check it out, this is from my first fight. Cheap shot, but it left this cool dent on my hip, see?"
"Please keep your pants on."
"It's literally a butt, relax."
"You are literally disrobing in front of my court."
"If they're watching, that's their own fault," she said. That was how their sight worked: they could look away anytime they wanted and things just wouldn't exist in their brains anymore, even if they were standing right next to them. Crazy. "It’s okay, you can admit I have you beat. I have the best scars."
"You do not have me beat."
"All right, how about this one? I was playing with the badgermole kits and things got a little rough. I think they forgot I don’t have fur. Don’t worry, I bit back."
There he went, dropping his head into his hands again. "How is this happening."
She punched his arm, to make sure he was looking. It was just her shoulder.
"Pretty wicked, right? I had to tell my parents that I got bit by something in our garden; they kept me inside for a month while they tried to figure out what it was." Their poor blind daughter couldn't have been expected to see the foul beast, after all. "Look, it's shaped like a jaw, and it's got these bumps where the teeth were. I wish tattoos worked like this, then I could get textures everywhere."
"Maybe you could just bite more wild animals."
"Is that the Fire Lord’s official decree? Man, I can’t wait to tell everyone I got your royal approval."
She made sure she was grinning her best grin, the one that made Snoozles shove Aang towards her as a meat shield and run. "So? Do I win?"
"You can’t win at having scars."
"Says the loser."
He huffed a laugh. Again: not the good kind of laugh. Then he took in a breath, and held it, and let it back out. "It's half my face."
...She wanted that to be an exaggeration, but that wasn't what his heartbeat was saying.
He'd been a year older than her when his dad did that to him. Why weren't they killing Ozai, again?
"Huh," she said. "That explains it. I hear faces are important or something. The scar makes everyone half-blind to you, doesn't it?"
"It's all right, Sparky. I can see you."
And wow, he did not know how to handle anything even approaching a compliment. That right there was a full-body splutter. She reached up and gave him another hair pat. He stiffened. And then… didn't. Just didn't.
He really, really wanted to trust her. And Uncle. And his generals, and his guards, and even Twinkletoes and Snoozles and Sugar Queen, though maybe he really shouldn't with Katara. He wanted to trust, but it wasn't the same as actually trusting.
I give up, his heart said. Or I know you're going to hurt me. Or I want to trust you. Like those were all the same, for him. She'd agreed to help Katara and Sokka kill this guy if it came down to it; this guy who couldn’t defend his personal space from a twelve year old, who got bullied by his own servants, who sat still and hid his flinches when she reached for him.
Well, even the best earthbender in the world could make mistakes. Non-bending-related ones.
Out in the courtyard, Aang and Katara and Sokka and Uncle and all the advisors really didn't know how to deal with watching her nearly moon the Fire Lord. Even less than his guards did, and that was saying something.
"I have a proposition for you, Sparky," she said. And she straightened out her clothes all properly again, sheesh. "For every blind joke you make, I get one burn jab."
"Come on. The navigation joke, 'better with a blind girl'? You've been dropping them at least once a conversation."
"Sorry. I didn't mean—"
"No no no. No wimping out on me. Do you know how many people blind joke around me? No one, because they wimp out." Which might or might not have been related to her ability to immediately inflict pain on them. Like she'd said: wimps.
"I. Um. I'd just… rather not make any more blind jokes?"
"Wimp. Fine: then for every burn jab I make, you get one blind joke."
"Doesn't that mean you're just going to keep insulting me?"
"Should have taken the first deal. Too late now. Burn jokes for blind jokes, and you'd better not cry like a little boy about it. Do we have a deal?"
"Can I stop you?"
Toph grinned. And for once, he did feel a little scared about it.
Oh yeah, they were friends.
I can't be the only one who watched Zuko's changing hair and kept really wanting to touch it. That ponytail like a cat toy, then that adorable chick fuzz, then the shaggy mess of God Zuko Use A Comb, then… them Fire Lord locks. All I'm saying, is. Zuko's hair had more character development than most shows give their lead characters. If Zuko's hair was Daenerys Targaryen, it wouldn't have burned down a city.
Chapter 13: Trust (1)
So it seems like some reviewers are developing an irrational fear that something bad is about to happen. I would just like to take this opportunity to reassure you all that this is fine, everything is fine.
*casually ticks the Trust Countdown down*
We're going to zero, in case anyone wondered.
Dinner was over. No one had killed anyone. His ministers were unhappy that he was sitting down to any kind of serious talk with a group of children (specifically, a group of children who didn't even technically speak for their respective nations, and who were very clearly aligned against the Fire Nation.) (Also technically, children who had taken down a small army on their own and who the rest of the world seemed willing to listen to.)
The Avatar's group was unhappy with everything else. So. Negotiations were starting on equal ground, at least?
Zuko ran a hand over his face. He paused, fingers on his scar, which had not lost because it wasn't a competition. (And if it had been, he would have won.)
Toph was… an interesting kid. Had a great intimidating look on her, but he'd grown up with Azula. His sister had more teeth behind her smiles at two than Toph did at twelve. It was actually kind of cute, how scary the earthbender was trying to be.
Had she said Sokka's real name on purpose, or had she just not realized he could hear her?
...Was Sokka his real name, or just another nickname she was trying to trick him into saying out loud? Ugh.
Zuko dropped his hand. Took in a breath, let it out. Okay. Back to organizing his notes. There were… a lot of things he needed his clerks to research. Not right now; it was too late, he couldn't ask them to work through the night. But if he got things ready for them, they could start on it first thing.
This would be easier to focus on if there wasn't a very quiet verbal scuffle happening outside his door.
"I'm still awake," he snapped, which made both participants pause.
"Your Majesty," one of his guards said, "Prince Iroh is here to see you."
Zuko's heart skipped a beat. In… kind of a literal way. His physician said it was nothing that bedrest and avoiding lightning strikes wouldn't cure. His physician had a much better intimidating face than Toph, but since the man couldn't run a country or redirect lightning for him, enforcing doctor's orders was more like a wish list than a to-do.
"Send him in, please." Zuko straightened his robes, but left the crown off. Made his papers a little neater. Should he stand? That might be too formal, but it would show respect, and he had years of disrespect to make up for—
The door opened while Zuko was half-way out of his chair. He hurried to straighten.
"Good evening, Zuko," Uncle said. "I hoped you would have time to speak?"
"Yes; of course. Take a seat. I'll, ah, send for tea. Guardsman Chan-ri, would you please see to it?"
The guard frowned at Uncle's back. And she didn't quite shut the door until Zuko used his intimidating look.
"Thank you, nephew." Uncle took the seat opposite him. Zuko sank back down, too. The crown and a pile of notes sat on the table between them. Uncle's gaze flicked over both before settling on him. "I'm glad we finally have a chance to speak alone."
"Yeah. Me too." He was fidgeting with his robe hem under the table. He stopped that, it was just Uncle, he didn't need to be this nervous.
"How are you, nephew?"
"I'm okay. Just… adjusting. How are you? Did you… did you get hurt at all? The reports say you fought with the Avatar against the airship fleet—-Which, which isn't an accusation, you did what you had to do, I—" He wished he'd been there, too. Or he had wished it. He might have been, if his own plan hadn't… hadn't.
"I was quite safe, nephew," Uncle interrupted, with just the start of a smile. "Thank you. And you?"
"I, uh. I didn't fight. I didn't even see the comet, actually."
"Because you were in prison?"
Zuko jerked up just a little straighter. His bruised shoulder shot a jolt of protest. "You… know about that?" Of course he knew about that, he was Uncle. And Captain Izumi had warned him that Uncle had been uncling this morning.
"Only second hand. Nephew, why were you imprisoned?"
Because he'd somehow thought that standing up to Ozai would be a good idea, instead of running as fast as he could the moment he couldn't look his father in the eye and say I am your loyal son. Because he'd tried to save Uncle, but Uncle had already saved himself.
Azula had a lot of fun the first few days, coming down to mock him. I see your time as a peasant has made you more considerate of others, Zuzu. How nice of you to walk yourself into prison. She'd gotten bored pretty quickly, though. And the last time he'd seen her—the last before he was Fire Lord—she'd been angry. Really angry. She wouldn't tell him why, but she'd stood with blue flames on her fists and asked him what loyalty was. He hadn't answered. Without fire of his own to defend him, trapped in a cell small enough she could just flood the whole thing with flame if he said the wrong thing, when he didn't even know what she was talking about, it… hadn't seemed wise.
His cell hadn't been as nice as Uncle's. It wasn't the kind of thing he should compare, and it wasn't a good thought to have. But Uncle had… kind of trashed his level of the prison, and pointed out a few security flaws. They'd been more careful, with Zuko.
Which was to say: Uncle had gotten a window.
"...Is something funny, nephew?"
He swallowed back a laugh. "No. Sorry. I'm just… a little tired. What was the question?"
"Why were you in prison?"
"Oh. I, uh. Said some things fath—Ozai didn't like." He couldn't tell Uncle he'd gotten imprisoned trying to save him. He just… couldn't. Couldn't tell him that he couldn't even rescue his own Uncle right. And maybe if Uncle knew he'd been coming that day, he would have waited, or they could have met somewhere and left this all behind together, and maybe if Uncle knew about those maybe-ifs it would hurt him.
(And maybe he wouldn't even believe Zuko, not without his living lie detector around to verify that Zuko wasn't just trying to play for sympathy.)
(Seriously, they'd brought a blind twelve year old to keep him honest? A blind. Twelve year old.)
For just a moment, Zuko felt warm again. His inner fire was there, and ready to burn something-anything(-anyone).
"What things, Zuko?"
They were still having this conversation. Zuko didn't want to be.
"Does it matter?" he snapped. "It was just another stupid plan I didn't think through. Like always."
Uncle looked at him long, and steady enough to make him squirm, like he was thirteen and raging at another failed Avatar lead again. "Zuko. How did you become Fire Lord?"
Zuko shrugged. His shoulder didn't like it, but his fire didn't mind the pain. "Azula had some kind of breakdown. Ozai was gone. So they dug me out."
Maybe if they hadn't been across the table from each other, Uncle would have hugged him then. He looked like he might. Zuko didn't know if he'd have let him, and was glad he didn't have to find out.
"Do you work this late every night, nephew?"
"...Not every night."
Uncle made his I know that you are being creative with the truth face, and Zuko tried to keep the other half of that sentence off his own: Not every night. Usually even later.
Uncles closed his eyes, and let out a long breath. "Nephew. You are not alone in this."
"I had… much time to think, in my own prison cell. And after. If I had known that you would oppose Ozai, perhaps…"
The end of that sentence was everything Zuko did and didn't want to hear. Uncle didn't finish. But he did keep talking.
"If you would have a foolish old man, I would like to remain in the palace, even after my companions depart."
I'm nominating Iroh as our palace spy, the Water Tribe boy's voice echoed in his head. But Uncle wouldn't do that. Well, he would. And already had. But… but only because he cared.
Zuko had to swallow before he could answer. "I'd like that. If you… don't need to be anywhere else."
"Zuko," Uncle said. And there was such warmth and admonishment in his voice that Zuko knew for sure he'd have hugged him then, if the table wasn't there. And… yeah. Zuko wouldn't have minded.
They talked about other things then, about how the Fire Sages were apparently plotting behind his back to get a regent in, but the generals who kept second-guessing his every idea were… surprisingly pleased with his performance. More than they thought they'd be, with Ozai's least favorite and child. Which was… a compliment?
(Uncle didn't say anything about General Waido's little remarks as they'd stood chatting at dinner, the polite surprise he'd expressed that General Iroh—my apologies, Prince Iroh —had not returned to the palace sooner. That his experience would be an invaluable asset for a Fire Lord…
"For a Fire Lord to call upon, you mean," Uncle had replied, with a smile just as benign as the general's own.
"Of course, my Prince."
And Zuko knew how bad he was with people, but even he could catch the catch the subtext there, and the way that General Kwang-su stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Waido and, oddly, the way Daichi stood a step further away. And the way they were all doing this right in front of him, because either they thought he couldn't figure it out or they knew it didn't matter what he heard.
...Or, if he was being generous, they just didn't realize he could hear them. His bad ear had been turned to them and he'd technically been pretty far away.
But Uncle knew how good Zuko's hearing was. So… Uncle had to know he'd heard. That was why he didn't bother saying anything now. And he hadn't done anything, he'd only supported Zuko, he was… Zuko could trust him. He could.)
"I don't need a regent," he frowned.
Not when Uncle kept being quiet while the Avatar's group talked. Not when Zuko didn't know what he thought about the colonies or the war. Zuko knew he wasn't doing the best job, but he wasn't going to roll over and give up what power he had unless someone better for the nation came along.
"I will not force the matter if you do not wish, Zuko. I will be here for you, in whatever way you need me. As your uncle, as your regent, as your counsel."
"Could we just… start with 'uncle'?" Zuko asked.
Table be damned, Uncle did reach across to hug him. It felt warm and safe, so warm and safe that Zuko didn't realize his own inner fire had doused itself again until Uncle pulled away.
"Thank you, Uncle," he said. And tried not to look as cold as he felt.
Uncle still saw something. Something that made him smile fondly, but not sit back down. "Why don't you get some sleep, nephew?"
Why? A lot of reasons. A lot. But it wasn't the sort of why that expected an answer.
"I will," he promised. And he would, as soon as he was done with this. "...Uncle? What's the Water Tribe boy's name?"
Uncle's eyes twinkled. "Oh, you mean Ambassador Snoozles?" He chuckled. "Forgive me, nephew. I fear you are underestimating the terror Miss Bei Fong represents."
...Uncle was no help at all. But maybe that was what uncles were for. Zuko rolled his eyes, and stepped out from behind his desk to open the door for him, because that at least was something he could do right. Uncle looked surprised, but thanked him. Guard Chan-ri looked surprised, and didn't.
She'd never sent for tea, he belatedly noticed. He wasn't sure which of them the insult was intended for.
Chapter 14: Trust (Break)
If you have not been warned sufficiently by the Trust Countdown, there is no warning you at all. Enjoy, kids—the next few chapters are nothin' but sunshine and rainbows and frolicking puppy-kittens.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The Head Clerk looked like he was about to pass out, either from pride or embarrassment. His Fire Lord—the first Fire Lord to directly visit his office during his tenure—didn't notice.
"This is wonderful. Really, great work." Zuko paged through the report, right there at the desk of the lower clerk who'd been compiling enough copies for everyone at the negotiations.
"T-thank you, Your Majesty," the clerk had been sitting as stiff and proper as it was humanly possible to get, but she still managed to jump a little higher upon being addressed.
"Did you get the projected trade numbers…?"
"Appendix E, Your Majesty."
Zuko flipped to the back, and read, and sagged in relief. Idly he rubbed at his arm, trying to work out a slept-on-it-wrong ache. That was what he got for sleeping in the first place. "This is exactly what I needed. Thank you so much. What about the Earth Kingdom…?"
Millimeter by millimeter, the lower clerk relaxed, and answered her young lord's questions. Centimeter by centimeter, the other clerks leaned over from their own desks to listen in.
"Really, Your Majesty, you could have just sent a servant," the Head Clerk fretted. "It is beneath Your Majesty's notice to—"
"You've all been working on this for a week," Zuko scowled. "Of course I'm going to thank you in person."
(The Head Clerk flinched, then schooled his expression blank. The lower clerks shared grins amongst themselves, then hurried to do the same before their superior noticed. Either of their superiors.)
"Did you look at the third section yet? We ran a forecast on how different tariff levels would affect the treasury, and—" the lower clerk gave her boss a subtle smirk as she saved him from further compliments.
"This is... it's just… it's perfect. Thank you." Zuko didn't notice he was clutching the report to his heart. The clerks definitely did. Then Zuko bowed to the office at large, and the Head Clerk choked.
"We should have the prison lists by next week," the lower clerk said. "Some of the older records on the Southern waterbenders were from prisons that already shut down, but we think we located the copies. They're getting shipped over now."
"Thank you," Zuko repeated. And bowed again.
He wasn't entirely certain the Head Clerk was breathing anymore, and he wasn't sure what he was doing wrong. Should he… bow lower? But he'd already worked his way up to young-royal-to-honored-elder when the man startled at his first simple royal-to-subject nod. It was like the more polite he got, the paler the Head Clerk became—
The lower clerk winked. "Maybe you should leave before he faints."
A very confused Zuko was escorted from the room by a woman only a few years older than he was. She smiled, and slid the door shut behind him. After a somewhat cheeky bow. Then there was a riot of noise from inside the room.
...Maybe he should send a servant, next time. His clerks were weird. But they did really, really good work.
The Water Tribe boy had been right, at that dinner a week ago—Zuko wasn't trying hard enough to make this peace work. So he'd tried harder, and now he was ready to show the Avatar's group how serious he was.
"What is this." Snoozles poked his copy of the report with a skeptical finger.
Zuko scowled, and fought the urge to drag the papers back out of the ungrateful peasant's reach. "I had my people researching potential trade deals we could offer the Water Tribes. The Earth Kingdom, too. We would be willing to offer favorable tariffs on construction materials and staple foods for five years, with open passage for registered passenger and merchant ships through Fire Nation Waters." The peasant wasn't looking impressed. Zuko scowled harder. "That means the western routes to the North Pole. Don't you want open communications with your sister tribe?"
Snoozles held up a hand to interrupt. (At least one of Zuko's advisors drew in a sharp breath at the casual insult.) "Back up. Fire Nation waters?"
Zuko had remembered to bring a map this time.
"You can't just claim the entire western ocean!"
The map didn't please the peasant or his sister or the Avatar, but he was starting to think nothing would. At least his admirals were nodding, looking vaguely insulted that anyone had dared disagree.
"It's the ocean," Zuko said, "between our islands," he tried to break this into peasant-accessible words, "and our colonies. It's our ocean. We're already ceding you back the southern and northern seas, and the Earth Kingdom can have the waters up to twenty kilometers from shores they still control. What more do you want?"
That was not a question he should have asked.
"You have to admit," the Avatar put in, several demands and immediate rejections shouted down by generals, admirals, and advisors alike later, "it's a little worrying to have the country that started the war controlling so many places that would, ah, make it easy to keep going with the war. Not that I'm saying you will! But I'm pretty sure the Earth generals aren't going to believe you like we do. And the Northern Tribe's been salvaging your fleet to build—"
" Aang!" Snoozles interrupted, but not before both of Zuko's admirals started trying to catch their Fire Lord's eye and give him we need to raze the North Pole to the ground NOW stares.
"No," he told them, which left them looking disgruntled and the Avatar's people looking confused, except for Uncle, who was still reading the report and being quiet. He'd carefully taken a seat in the exact middle of the two groups, as he had every day since he'd agreed to just be Zuko's Uncle again. And though he was perfectly happy to discuss strategies during breaks or after the meetings ended for the day, his support at the table generally took the form of not actively disagreeing with his nephew, even though he clearly did. Zuko had forgotten how annoying Uncle could be. It was familiar and infuriating and nice and ugh.
Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, and resolved to send his clerks some kind of gift and to never let them know how little their work had helped. It wasn't their fault; he'd just… had them researching the wrong things. Apparently. Zuko would... keep trying. These were just the preliminary talks; as long as the Avatar left here not actively hostile towards the Fire Nation, it was a win. Even if they accomplished literally nothing else with the extravagant amounts of time they were wasting on this. They just needed to show enough good faith so that next time the other Nations would feel comfortable sending representatives that weren't legal minors. That would be… that would be great.
And then they could start this all over again, in a room full of unhappy adults, where he'd be the youngest person at the table and the focal point for a hundred years worth of hatred. Yeah, great.
He rubbed at his fingers under the table, trying to work a little feeling back into the tips. Azula was another great part of his life. That he'd taken to visiting her when he needed a break from this maybe said everything.
"Hey, Sparky," Toph said. "How about we stop for tea? My ears are sick of people shouting the same five things."
Zuko's entire side of the table bristled at the little girl's presumption. Zuko… felt pathetically grateful for the excuse. Maybe he could sneak off somewhere private and bang his head against a wall. The blind girl winked towards him, like she knew exactly what he was thinking. Winked. Who'd even taught her what a wink was?
Before Zuko could agree, Uncle was talking.
"I am not certain the Earth Kingdom will be able to afford these prices, Zuko."
Uncle, who had been carefully paging through his proposal since he'd been handed a copy.
But still didn't approve.
"What do you mean?" Zuko turned to the same page in his own report, and completely failed to see the problem. "It's not like we'll allow the merchants to price gouge, not if they want to buy from the central stores. That's just… what it's worth." There were benefits to a hundred years under effective military rule: a fairly complete government control over critical food supplies was one of them.
"Do you know how much of the Earth Kingdom burned, nephew?" Uncle didn't usually call him nephew at the table, but he didn't usually miss someone saying the word tea, either.
Zuko tugged his map out from under the peasant's elbows. "The airship fleet came in from the coast at the Wulong Forest, and continued inland until they were stopped outside Yangzhou, though the fires kept spreading until—"
"And what type of land is in that prefecture, nephew?"
Thirteen years of tutor drills came spilling out of dusty corners of his mind. "Jiangsu prefecture's primary exports are rice, grain, and other… agricultural projects."
They'd burned an entire prefecture of food. At the end of summer; before the harvest, and with no time to replant before winter.
He'd known that, but he hadn't… known that. It had only been two months, he'd been focused on getting his own people somewhere safe, not on how another country's peasants would eat this winter.
"How bad of a famine are they facing?" Zuko asked, trying not to picture Earth Kingdom villages where food had already been scarce before Ozai had decided to just burn things to the ground, and a boy who'd invited him into his home and a family who'd shared their food with him anyway. People who'd hated him for being just a half-starved banished prince. How many curses had they sent to their dusty gods when they heard of the new Fire Lord? They probably wished they'd let him starve.
He knew what it felt like, to starve.
"Bad. Many will die, Zuko. If the Fire Nation makes no reparations, the war must continue; the Earth Kingdom will not allow itself to starve while the colonies eat. Returning even some of the land would put food back into Earth Kingdom hands, and show how serious you are—"
"Displace our citizens, and give enemy troops our harvest?" One of the advisors snorted. Better for him to say it than Zuko; it gave the Avatar's team someone else to glare at, for a change. Zuko rubbed at his arm, still trying to make that lingering ache go away.
They were all arguing again, and he just wanted to cover his ears and block them out, why did they all have to be so loud, this wasn't helping.
" Stop it," he cut in. "If anyone has concrete suggestions, please speak them. Those who wish to bark like albatross-seals, the guards can escort you to the harbor."
His guards didn't move. Zuko hadn't really meant them too, but it still would have been nice if they'd at least twitched. They wouldn't have assumed his sister was joking.
"Well, maybe you can find a way to share…" the twelve-year-old said. Not the one he was starting to honestly like; the one who'd fought his father and somehow stayed ridiculously naive.
"Share," Zuko deadpanned. "Great idea. I'll just tell my farmers that this year we'll be paying sub-standard rates, and shipping their food off to feed people who hate us, so that in the spring they'll be healthy enough to attack. I'm so glad the Avatar returned, world peace is so easy with your ancient wisdom to guide us—"
"I'm just trying to help—"
"Maybe we can trade," Snoozles put in. "You've got daddy issues, we've got your daddy. How many kilograms of rice is he worth to you?"
"Why would—" Zuko drew in a deep breath and did not try to convince the peasant, again, that bringing Ozai back into the capital was literally the last thing he wanted. "How is that even safe, giving him back to us? Do you seriously think he wouldn't just take the throne and immediately restart the war? Would you rather deal with him?"
"I hear you people have a thing about your bending superiority," the peasant smirked. "Hard to be a Fire Lord without any fire."
Another deep breath, because it was always hard to get air when they were talking about Ozai. "...What?"
The monk rubbed the back of his bald head. "I, uh. Took away his bending?"
Zuko didn't understand, for a moment. No one on his side of the table did. The words were clear enough but they— how— that couldn't be—
Uncle nodded, just slightly.
Zuko had never felt so cold in his life, like whatever embers of flame he had left just banked themselves down to coals, trying to hide from what he was hearing.
"You can take away bending," he heard himself saying. "Agni's gift. You can just… take it away."
The airbender was chattering something back, looking sheepish but a little proud, but it was just… buzzing in Zuko's ears.
The Avatar could take away bending.
Maybe somehow that wasn't as horrifying to waterbenders or earthbenders or airbenders, because the Avatar's group looked a little uneasy (the non-bender still looked smug, of course he did, he couldn't understand), but the Fire Nation side of the table had stopped breathing.
And then they were breathing very carefully, the kind of breaths that stoked inner flames.
Inner flames. Not the earth under their feet or the water of their seas, not the air around them. Inner flames. Agni's gift was their heart, their life, it couldn't be snuffed without killing the bender. Even Zuko's little embers were still there, could still flare if he could just figure out how. To be completely gone—
How was Ozai still alive.
Why would he want to be alive, to be this cold for the rest of his life?
How could the airbender sit there talking of peace when he'd ripped Agni's hand from one of His chosen? The Avatar was the World Spirit, but Agni was the Sun God. The sun shone on his people and kindled flames in the strongest. Death was death, but to have their souls ripped out and their bodies kept living, beyond the sight of their god—
For the first time, Zuko thought of his father not just as a human being, but a frail one, a pitiable one. One who'd been subjected to a twelve-year-old's mercy instead of an honorable death.
Zuko was going to be sick. Or pass out. But he couldn't, because the Fire Lord was Agni's will on earth made manifest, the one who protected the flames. He squeezed his arm and took too-shallow breaths and ignored his people's glances of concern and… got through it.
Was that what the Avatar intended for every firebender who disagreed with him, who he couldn't control? It—it honestly wouldn't make much difference for Zuko, his flames were almost gone, but what about his generals, his admirals, his captains and lieutenants and common soldiers? There weren't many in his armies that the other nations couldn't call war criminals. For many they'd even be right. Zuko had known there would have to be justice along with any talks of peace, but he'd—he'd pictured imprisonment, he'd pictured executions. He hadn't in his worst nightmares imagined a monk with good intentions.
"Sparky," Toph said. "I really think tea time is a good idea—"
Her voice reminded him to breathe.
"Avatar. I must respectfully request that you leave my palace. Now."
"Are you serious?" the peasant squawked.
The waterbender crossed her arms "Told you. They don't do families like the Water Tribe—"
And his own people were shouting back, and the earthbender's face was screwing up like she was about to act her age, and he just couldn't.
"You came to see if we were serious about peace. We are. I have welcomed you into my home, and you have…" Insulted him at every turn. And through him, the Nation and the God he stood for, but he'd tried to be welcoming and polite and not strangle them. "But we aren't getting anywhere, and you're... you're not even designated representatives of your Nations, you're children."
"You're a teenager," the Avatar snapped.
Zuko had heard that one before; less than a year ago, with snow under his boots and the polar wind trying to freeze him and his inner fire warm enough to keep it at bay. It was… easier to remember the snow than the flames.
"I am the Fire Lord." Not the banished prince who'd chased them. But he didn't think the people that needed to hear that would listen to weak protests like I'm not that person anymore. "Leave; when you find representatives who can speak for your nations, please send word. I'll meet with them. But Avatar, you—you don't even know what you did. You are not welcome in Fire Nation lands until you do."
Stay away from my people. He wanted to shout it, but he didn't have enough breath and the monk wouldn't have listened, anyway.
Besides. The airbender was doing plenty of shouting for him. "I spared your father's life."
"You destroyed him." He took a breath in through his nose, and out through his mouth, and very pointedly looked away from the child he didn't particularly like to the one he did. "Lady Bei Fong. If you ever feel yourself underappreciated, your services would find welcome in my court."
"Huh," she said, looking honestly surprised for the first time since he'd met her. "Truth."
"Yeah, kick us out, that's great," the peasant said breezily. "But the Earth Kingdom generals don't want to talk to you, and the Earth King is missing, and you've got our Chief locked up or—or dead, and you killed the Northern Chief's daughter. Just who do you think you're going to find that wants to talk to you, Sparky? We are the peace process. Now give us some nice reparations to take back to the other nations so we can prove you mean this, and we'll see what we can do to open up some minds—"
Zuko's breath was still short and his chest was starting to hurt, but he found enough air to shout. "You did not win the war! Uncle, can you please explain to them how coming to terms works? ...Uncle?"
"There will be no peace while the Earth kingdom starves, Zuko. They will have no choice but to attack."
"Let them," General Daichi scoffed. "We'll just beat them again."
Uncle frowned at his old war friend. "A hundred years of suffering is not remedied by—"
If that was a proverb Zuko was going to light something on fire, even if he had to get spirits-damned spark rocks to do it. "They want Fire Nation food? Let them surrender to the Fire Nation. Otherwise, their own King can handle it. Once you find him and his bear."
That… made the table a lot quieter.
"You are not thinking this through, nephew—"
"Do you think you could do a better job?" Zuko laughed, but it came out more of a snarl-wheeze.
Toph pulled at Uncle's sleeve, insistently. "His heart is doing that thing again. Really bad. Really bad. I thought it was going to stop, but it hasn't—"
"My heart is fine," Zuko snapped. On principle. It certainly wasn't worse than it had been since this stupid meeting started, and his own people could just stop looking at him like that.
Uncle was doing what he did best, and ignoring him. "Miss Katara…"
"Fine, I'll heal the Fire Lord." The waterbender stood, with an extravagant roll of her eyes, her thumb flicking the cork of her waterskin.
Zuko's flinch was instinctive. " Don't touch me!"
He didn't know when he got to his feet, and he didn't know why he could see his arms shaking but couldn't feel them, but he did understand why Azula banished everyone. If that was the only way to make them leave him alone for five minutes (to maybe feel safe, for five minutes)—
"Well, I tried." The waterbender sat back down. Toph punched her in the arm. Not one of the friendly punches he'd seen her give to all of them, even the lumbering bison, but a punch that almost knocked the girl over.
"Try harder, Sugar Queen."
"Perhaps a break—" Uncle's tone was so mild and conciliatory that Zuko wanted to scream.
He settled for shouting. "You are not my regent, Uncle. You can't tell me when to take a break."
"Miss Toph feels you should see a healer, nephew. If not ours, perhaps your own—"
"What good will that do? He'll just say I need to rest and avoid stress." And, oh, not get hit by lightning. Minor details. "Which would be a lot easier if you would all just leave."
"Nephew, it has been a long morning. A long week—"
Maybe they should have taken a break or moved this somewhere private, but if Zuko took the time to change rooms he might not be this angry anymore, and it felt… it felt good. He was warm, hot, his inner fire was roaring again. Not the guttering spark that could barely redirect Azula's off-handed attempts to maim him but real flame. The kind the Avatar could tear out of a person, and was willing to, and thought was better than death.
"You don't get to play Fire Lord, Uncle. You didn't want to be Fire Lord." There were flame daggers in his hands; he hadn't meant to make them, but they'd come to him as easily as they had in any tantrum back on his ship. His breath control was shit, but they still flared in his palms like they belonged there.
"Zuko, you are ill, please—"
" Fire Lord Zuko. I know no one wanted me to be. I'm just the person sitting the throne while you all figure out who you actually want. Father didn't want me, and you didn't even want me to go home, and Azula is probably just going to kill me, but—but I'm here now, and I'm going to do a good job at this if it kills me."
The resounding silence at that, the way servants and guards and advisors of every rank all looked like they understood something he didn't—it guttered his flames back down to coals.
He didn't like this. Whatever was about to happen, whatever that shared silence meant, he didn't like it.
(The little earthbender was trying to physically shove the waterbender at him, but she'd frosted her shoes to the tatami floors and was refusing to move.)
"Fire Lord Zuko. Under Agni's sight and before the court, I challenge you for the dragon throne."
"Uncle?" Zuko thought he spoke but maybe he hadn't said anything at all, because Uncle wasn't answering, wasn't listening.
"This is my right as Iroh, son of Fire Lady Ilah and Fire Lord Azulon, Grandson of Mizura and Sozin, whose line is pure and descended from Agni."
"This… this isn't funny."
"The terms are until surrender. The time—"
He caught sight of the Avatar and his group behind Uncle, and their faces were— the waterbender was vindictive, the peasant grim, Toph open-mouthed, the Avatar sympathetic. And there was only one thing those looks could mean. They knew what this meant to him. His face burned with remembered heat and shame and how could Uncle—
"You told them. You told them? ...Of course you told them."
"Hey, he was just trying to humanize you—"
"Why do I need— How much more human do you want me to be, Water Tribe?"
Zuko looked around, but… no one was stopping this, this no one was intervening, he was just as alone as he'd been last time he'd been at a meeting with Uncle and the words Agni Kai had come up, and he felt like this shouldn't be familiar.
"I'm the third Fire Lord this summer," he said. "The Sages will never—"
"The Sages have already given their blessings, Zuko." Uncle was making some weird face, like this hurt him as much as it did Zuko, but he didn't need to be an earthbender to call that lie. "...You could still accept a regent. Or forfeit the throne. Please, Zuko. You have been hurting yourself, and I will not stand by and lose another—"
I am your loyal son.
He didn't want to believe this. It was a nightmare, and he'd wake up and… and never tell Uncle about it, because it was too awful, it couldn't be real.
And if he was anyone else it wouldn't be. But Zuko had a lifetime of experience, and he recognized his luck. It had been saving up for this. Clearly.
"That's why you wanted to go to the Fire Temple."
"You literally asked permission before going behind my back. I should have seen this coming, right? if I was half the politician my father was, or Azula, or that I should be—"
"Please forfeit," Uncle said.
"I accept your challenge," Zuko said.
It wasn't even going to be a fight, but he couldn't just… Uncle was on the Avatar's side. Didn't anyone else see that? He didn't want his physician and he didn't want to lay down and he didn't want their fake concern or time to think this over, shut up leave him alone, he just— Wanted it done.
It was done the moment Uncle said the words; the rest was just theater. Putting on a show for the court, and then he could go back to his jail cell or a ship or wherever else the new Fire Lord decided to put him.
Uncle set the time. It was either an hour later or the next day, but time was slipping again, like it had in prison. The sun was right there, he found himself just sitting and waiting for things to start, staring up at it, wondering why he couldn't feel it anymore than he had in the dark.
It felt about as real as a play when the servant slipped the gold bands up his arms, never meeting his eyes. It was the woman who always made sure his robes were straight. She did the same for his prayer shawl, and he realized he couldn't remember her name anymore.
She wasn't his servant anymore.
She left him alone, which was her job. Zuko let the shawl fall to the ground and stood, which was his. He'd never thought there could be something worse than turning around and seeing father, but here it was.
Zuko fought. He had to, because falling to his knees and begging never worked once in his life and he was sick of even trying. Because his country needed him. Because fucking never give up without a fight, Uncle taught him that.
Uncle took him down gentle as an owl-cat scruffing her kitten. He held Zuko still as the scowling waterbender approached with her hand on her waterskin. Uncle had ordered Captain Izumi to stand ready to put out any flames, but they hadn't come for Zuko during the fight and they didn't come now. The guardswoman looked disgruntled at the order; probably she'd rather delegate to a junior captain, now that she'd been freed from babysitting.
The waterbender pursed her lips and knelt at Zuko's side. Whatever she did with that water-gloved hand over his chest felt wonderful, because apparently even his body was going to betray him today.
He was laughing. Deep heaving laughs that got stronger after she healed him, thanks for that. He didn't know when that started, but it felt good, too.
"Come on, my boy," Uncle said. "You are going to sleep now, and we are going to talk in the morning. I know it does not feel like it now, but you will heal—"
Zuko slashed out a hand, breaking Uncle's kindly hold on his shoulders. He struggled back to sitting on his own.
"You said you thought of me as your son."
"I do, Zuko."
He managed to swallow the next laugh long enough to speak.
"Thank you for the lesson, father."
You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher.
And then he was laughing too hard to get up, and… It felt fucking fantastic, actually. The look on Uncle's face was almost as raw as Zuko's everything, it hurt and he couldn't stop laughing and it hurt.
He tried. He fought. He didn't give up.
He still lost, like he always did.
Was it okay to stop now?
All good chapters start with pulling up "Heart Attack Symptoms" on the ol' Google and quietly checking them off. All you sweet summer children who thought a heart attack was mutually exclusive to something far worse, bless your souls.
I absolutely promise this is Zuko's mental health low point for the story. So go ahead and swallow your hearts back down, down where they definitely won't get ripped out again.
Chapter 15: Stay Out of Azula's Toybox
Well that got a response. An extremely overwhelmingly holy sh!t love-you-all positive one. I would like to take this moment to offer warm blankies and hot cocoa and ssh-everything-will-be-okay hugs to anyone who did not yet receive them; they are the standard post-chapter-14 care package. The cocoa is the real stuff, and also good for recovering from Dementor attacks, which may feel similar to what you just experienced.
Now that the reactions are in, I'm allowed to admit I was super extremely Zuko-in-new-social-situations terrified of posting that. But ya'll are friggin' epic and there are 134 comments and counting on that chapter on FF alone, and I know I'm new to this fanfic thing, but that seems like a good sign.
I, um. Also apparently made a lot of people legit cry. Sorrynotsorry. Worse, I sent one reviewer on a Linkin Park bender. There's making people cry, and then there's Linkin Parking them. (I love you, Takua. This song's for you, as they say.)
The following chapter was not in my outline. This was written because so many people wanted to see outsider POV reactions, and had really good ideas for them. So. Here is a chapter literally consisting of a round-up of your own we-need-to-see-this-NOW flails, made suddenly plot relevant because you wished for it (hasn't anyone ever warned you about wishes, dearies?) Credit where credit is due in the end notes for who-inspired-what. Congratulations, ya'll just became roundabout SIs! I'm sure that's definitely how that works.
If future chapters get as overwhelming of a response as the last one did, I may not be able to reply to all reviews individually any more. I replied to the first… 110ish? But. But I assumed that everyone would rather have a new chapter than for me to continue replying. For those I didn't get to, and also those I did, and those yet to come: know that I love you and I'm listening and I'm making a quilt of all your kind words and political rantings to warp around myself. You fuel my inner fire. <3<3<3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The Head Clerk was having a lay down at his desk. Not an actual lay down, but clearly a mental one: he was looking at the same papers he had been since their Fire Lord left. Every now and then he would smile to himself, and then look vaguely horrified.
The lower clerks were akin to a herd of buffalo-puppies left unsupervised outside their pen. Except with distinctly more staying at their desks. It was, after all, still work hours.
"He was just so sweet," the young woman who'd talked their Fire Lord through the trade report said. "I knew he was young, but I didn't think he'd actually be young. I just…!"
"Oww, oww my ear. Could you please stop making high-pitched noises Jinza, they are not necessary for communication, and can we please get back to work—"
"You know you liked him, Takuya."
Takuya pushed his glasses a smidge higher up his nose. And lifted his chin, on general principle. "I don't really think it's either appropriate or safe to like a Fire Lord."
"He seems… different," another clerk cautiously put in, with a glance all around to make sure no court spies had managed to infiltrate the closed room in the last thirty seconds.
"He seems like we might get a raise," Gendou said, crossing his arms. " What? He does. Ozai never gave us one."
"Ozai never came down here," Jinza of the high-pitched noises pointed out.
"Can we all take a moment to appreciate that His Majesty Ozai never came down here?" Takuya said. "And I would be perfectly happy if Fire Lord Zuko similarly refrained from noticing us, this seems like a terrible precedent to encourage. It's fine when he's pleased, but what happens when—"
There was a distant boom. They all instinctively flinched at the sound of lightning hitting something that was likely semi-important.
"I'm simply saying," Takuya said, "tigerdillo kittens are cute, but they grow up."
The echoes of Her Highness Azula's latest tantrum faded. It left considerable quiet behind.
"...So did anyone here get banished?" Gendou asked. He'd authored a paper on the consequences of burning an agricultural prefecture that one of the war ministers hadn't liked, and had gone to visit sick relatives for three months. Hadn't come back until he'd heard about the new Fire Lord.
All the other clerks turned to Jinza. She held up her hands in surrender. "I was out delivering the budget report to Lady Huian. Her Highness seemed to think I was one of her handmaidens. 'Who authorized you to be in this hallway? You're banished!'" She tapped her chin. "His Majesty gave us back pay for that. Most terrifying vacation I've ever had."
"Can we all, please," Takuya said, "just take a moment to appreciate that we have a room to hide in? One that was, until this morning, royalty-free?"
"Can we all agree that the next time a royal is on the war path, Takuya's on budget-delivering duty?" Gendou said.
The clerk's office was not a democracy, but this did not stop the vote from passing.
It wasn't until lunch that any of them had cause to re-open their office door. They took their conversation into the hall (Takuya very firmly snatched his glasses back from Gendou, and finger-combed his ruffled hair, and—)
—And they realized the silence around them like rabbit-mice freezing in a too-still forest. Guards stood straight and attentive at their usual posts. Servants scuttled demurely about their duties. Everything ran with the perfect efficiency and familiarity of low-key terror.
Gendou swore, and had Takuya and Jinza's hands clapped over his mouth before the words were halfway out.
The clerks did not speculate on the atmosphere. They did not whisper or banter or chat. They walked calmly and respectfully through the hallways, stepping aside and bowing low to those of higher rank, nodding to those they knew, and otherwise blending as closely as they could with the floor and/or walls until they reached the safest place in the entire castle to find out what in Agni's name was going on, who or what had died, and had the nobles found a scapegoat for it yet or if they were still looking.
The kitchen doors opened onto carefully organized panic.
"You need to leave," the sous-chef said, after checking who was coming through the door. Just the clerks; quiet kids who knew how to keep their heads down and their mouths shut.
"I need to be here." The chef gutted another fire-salmon. Such work was beneath him, but he'd been doing a lot more of the stabbing prep since Prince—since Fire Lord Iroh's return.
"You insulted him to his face, Master Jae-Jin. You need to leave now." It was neither a plea nor a request. It was a fact. Between one fish and the next, the sous-chef took the cutting board and the fish basket away.
The chef was left with only his knife and a shaking hand. This could have been a metaphor for his life, but was just reality. "I can't just run. That boy needs us to..."
"It's already done, Jae-Jin." The sous-chef took the knife, too. "Do you have somewhere to go?"
The chef nodded. He didn't say where, and the sous-chef didn't ask. He'd worked thirty-one years under Azulon and Ozai, his sous-chef for twenty-nine of them; they both knew how these things worked.
They both knew he should have kept his spirits-damned mouth shut, but he'd worked thirty-one years without as much hope for his nation as he'd had these past two months.
The boy was too good for court. They'd known it when he was thirteen; it shouldn't have surprised them now.
Lady Huian called the servant to her office. The servant considered not coming. But… it was Lady Huian. And she didn't know where else to go.
"Please take a seat."
The servant carefully smoothed her skirts under her knees, and did so. She did not look up.
"Do you have somewhere to go?"
She shook her head. Lady Huian reached across the low table, and squeezed her hand. "Let's find you someplace then, shall we?"
Crying was beneath a palace servant. But she wasn't a palace servant anymore, was she?
Five days ago, she'd been bold and thought herself clever when she was really just stupid, a fool who'd let her guard down. She had joked with His Maj—with Prince Zuko. Smiled and said It's good to see you eating, Your Majesty. And it was. And the young lord had blushed, and she hadn't been afraid at all that he would ever do anything more.
But she'd also called Prin—called Fire Lord Iroh's friend, the Water Tribe boy, a poison taster.
Jokes like that were not safe, and she could not risk staying to find out exactly how not safe they were, especially if anything did happen because then she would be the first blamed and the court sometimes found it inconvenient to investigate further—
"Ssh. Quiet now, you sweet girl. It won't be forever. We'll call you back when all is forgotten." Lady Huian stroked her hair. "You had a family emergency, and had to leave very suddenly…"
Lightning flashed above the palace, cutting through the cloudless sky. The crack of thunder came a moment later. Some in the square glanced up; the rest had better things to do.
Or better things to gossip about. A group of old busybodies veterans, too old or injured or both to fight, was clogging up the pavement in front of Old Sakura's fish cart ( spicy fire-salmon, hot shell-lobster, fried to order—)
"It's the shoes. Look, see? No, don't look -look, you're staring. But see? They changed their clothes, sure, but those are fancy little slippers they've got on. Palace servants, you mark me. Looks like Fire Lord Zuko's staff has got their first case of urgently sick relatives."
Old Sakura's useless fish gutter gutted his own hand. Again. "Boy. Stop staring and work."
"Sorry, ma'am." The young man ducked his head and tucked his shoulders, though he kept tracking the red-eyed girl with her too-nice shoes as an older woman led her towards the docks.
The busybodies continued busybodying. And not buying anything, either. "So His Majesty's finally cleaning court? About time he showed his colors."
"Do you think it's that? Or do you think the court cleaned him? Prince Iroh is back in town…"
One of them spit to the side. "Like anyone would stand for that traitor on the throne?"
"The boy's a traitor, too. What? He is. Though I guess he's probably rescinded that status by now. Perks of being in charge."
"How did he defeat his sister, anyway?"
"Poison, for sure. Slip her a little before the fight, and—"
"There wasn't a fight. They'd have announced it if he ascended legally. She was just Fire Lord one day, and gone the next."
"If you ask me, the Sages wanted the weaker heir on the throne. It's a power grab now that Ozai's gone."
"I heard she was betrayed by those Dai-whatsits—the Earth Kingdom traitors, you know the ones—"
" Oww!" the young man dropped his knife.
Old Sakura glared down at him. He didn't meet her eyes; never did. "You bleed on the merchandise, I'm taking it out of your wages."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, around the sliced finger he'd stuck in his mouth.
"Thought you said you knew how to do this."
"I do. In theory? I've seen it done."
Old Sakura sighed, and lamented the declining quality of day laborers. And busybodies who were still standing in front of her stall.
"—Clearly takes after his father. I mean really, trying to challenge for the throne at thirteen?"
"That's not what happened!"
"Oh, sorry, it was a training accident."
"You take that back! My cousin was in the 41st—"
"Never took you for a conspiracy theorist."
"Say that again."
"Break it up, you two, the guards are right there—"
Old Sakura's fish gutter stared down at his still-very-bleeding finger, then flicked his gaze briefly up at her. Old Sakura gave him the ol' what do you expect me to do about it deadpan that had gotten her through five children and seemed fit to get her through the grandbabies, too. The young man looked around helpless as a salmon-eel flopping on the docks, then finally figured out he could tear a strip from his shirt and wrap it up himself. Did it a lot better than anything he'd done with that knife, and Old Sakura wondered what kind of life taught a man about bandages but not blades. But she didn't become Old Sakura by asking questions this close to the palace.
The busybodies hadn't even glanced at Old Sakura's menu.
"My sister's girl is a clerk up at the palace, and she says the guards say the boy came after his father with swords on the eclipse. Swords!"
"I heard he used lightning."
"Com'on, how's the royal family's weakest bender pull off lightning during an eclipse?"
"You're all missing the point. Ozai is still alive. He's still our lord. Why isn't anyone getting him back? It's got to be a Fire Sage conspiracy—"
"The Fire Lord's the Fire Lord. Don't act like you care who's signing the war orders."
"Isn't His Majesty Zuko trying to stop the war?"
"Please stop buying into the propaganda. It's for the other countries, not us."
"I hope Prince Iroh does take the throne. We can't have a sixteen year old in charge, not when the other nations are getting bold enough to attack our capital. Definitely don't need a kid who's going to sit down for peace talks with the Avatar. Didn't he lead the attack? We need someone who knows war—"
"Someone who knows how to run from war, you mean?"
"Your cousin was in the 41st? I was in the 56th. Ba Sing Se was a bloodbath after we opened up that wall, he saved all our lives when he pulled back—"
"Should have slit his own stomach, the coward—"
" Say that again."
"Guys. The guards. Are right there.
Old Sakura's fish gutter swore, and stuck another finger in his mouth. It wasn't a Fire Nation swear, but at least it was quiet. Old Sakura flipped a tuna-pus on the grill. "You're going to get yourself burnt if you keep letting your mud show, kid."
He met her eyes. Just for a startled, scared moment. Green eyes in a Fire Nation face. "What do you mean, ma'am?"
"Colony brats don't last in Caldera. Especially not useless ones." She wasn't crude enough to say half-breed, but the way he always kept his eyes on the ground, she didn't need to. He ducked his head again. "And that's another thing—I don't know how it is in whatever backwater you washed in from, but in the Fire Nation, we have pride. Keep your head up, learn to use a spirits-damned knife if you can't bend, and if you lot aren't buying anything, move out!"
The busybodies took their near-brawl and their gossiping elsewhere. Old Sakura got back to selling fish.
Her fish gutter got back to practicing on himself. But he was swearing by Agni now, so he could learn.
The palace doctor ran a hand through his silvered hair as they stood outside the prince's room in the infirmary. Captain Izumi thought they'd both had less gray the last time they'd been here, but it was likely just her imagination. Three years wasn't much time to change, and they'd both been old lion-dogs for longer than she liked to admit.
"She didn't make it worse, at least," the doctor said. "But it's too soon to say if he's truly healed. The arrhythmia is gone for the moment, but it's always been better when he's resting. I simply don't know how a waterbenders' healing works."
"Keep me informed," she said. Not an order, but a request between friends. The doctor nodded tiredly.
One of her guards slipped from the Fire L—the prince's room. "Captain? He's awake."
She took one look at the man's face, and set her jaw. "Did he attack you?"
"No, he…" The guard looked ill. His next word was a plea, more than anything. "Captain."
The prince was kneeling on the floor when she entered the room. Kneeling, and offering his hands up to be bound, and looking puzzled by the way the other guard had retreated from him.
"Prince Zuko," she said, but didn't know how to continue.
"Captain Izumi," he said, his voice as carefully level and respectful as it had been since they brought him up from the dark. He probably thought it made him sound mature, but Izumi thought he sounded like a child drowning in his father's robes. "I'm ready."
She looked down at his offered hands, and wished she didn't understand. "Prince Zuko, please return to bed."
"I'd rather just sleep in my cell. It's… too bright here." He swallowed. "Or… am I banished?"
She couldn't talk. Not right then. Not with her prince on the floor. She took him by the arm (an inexcusable crossing of lines; a common guard handling the royal person like a son of Agni's line was a simple child in need of a friendly touch—) and she led him back to his bed. He leaned against the side at her urging, but he wouldn't lay down and her muscles locked at the thought of pushing him.
"You're not banished, Your Highness."
His eyes weren't entirely focused; the doctor had been trying to give him a few hours rest, but this particular son of Agni had the stubbornness of a mule-ox. "It's okay. You don't have to lie to me. I know how this works."
"Fire Lord Iroh has given no such orders, sir." She wanted to say that he wouldn't, that the prince was safe, but she'd thought him safe this morning and she wouldn't be made a liar again. "I believe he wishes for you to rest."
"You don't have to lie," he repeated, in the same dazed way a thirteen year old with bandages on his face had asked How long am I banished for?
And his uncle had sat by his bedside and explained, as Fire Lord Ozai's guards stood waiting to enforce the order.
Captain Izumi pushed the memory down. "I have no such orders, sir. I will report to you immediately if this changes."
He let his shoulders slump. It made him look even smaller. "Thank you, Captain."
His eyes flicked to the guard who'd backed away from him, and the other who was only now slipping back into the room.
"They're here to protect you, sir."
"By order of the Fire Lord," he said, sounding precisely as reassured as the statement warranted. One of those horrible laughs slipped out of him again, but at least he had the presence of mind to clap a hand over his mouth. His shoulders shook, and Captain Izumi didn't know whether she'd rather it was with laughter or worse.
He'd never trusted them to keep him safe, even when he was the one giving orders. He'd as good as said he'd expected to be overthrown at the court's earliest convenience. Given that he'd never shared that concern with her, she could gather what side of the coup he'd expected her to fall on. He'd thought she wouldn't help him.
She hadn't. What did it matter that Fire Lord Iroh had done things the legal way, that it had been no place of hers to step in when sun clashed against sun; she hadn't done a thing to stop him. Hadn't done a thing to earn this boy's trust, or a thing to keep it.
He'd been right about her. She just hadn't known it herself, until today.
"You should... rest for now. Sir."
"Okay," he said, but he was still sitting on the bed when she left. The doctor took one look at her, and prepared a second dose of sleeping aid for their former Fire Lord.
Sokka wished for a lot of things. There were the ones he quipped about, the little papercuts in life: more meat, an Avatar-leash, his space sword back from whatever burned Earth Kingdom field it had dropped in.
Then there were the wishes that cut a little too deep, and the scabs were prone to tearing: a hug that felt like mom's, his little sister at home sewing his pants like safe little sisters did instead of constantly hurling themselves at danger, a girlfriend that didn't turn into the moon or wind up otherwise gone-never-coming-back and it was already done before he'd even known he missed his chance to save her.
Then there were the big ones, the amputated limbs he still felt but couldn't move:
A childhood like the elders talked about, with summers split between the different camps where berries grew and salmon ran and seals slept on ice flows, not running between ice-bound secondary sites to avoid Fire Navy patrols along the coast. Winters spent around a fire in the central lodge, wrapped in furs and stories of the world's first tides rather than staring at the spaces that hadn't been empty last year.
A working relationship with their sister tribe in the north and the Foggy Swamp and even the knowledge of where other pockets of waterbenders might be tucked away (and why hadn't he looked that up in Wan Shi Tong's library, instead of going straight for the information that would get them kicked out? He wondered if Aang felt the same about Air Nomad hiding places, but didn't-couldn't ask. It went without saying that getting chased by a giant owl-snake meant he'd screwed things up for their whole team.)
And a very relevant wish: for a father who'd stayed home, and the other fathers with him, and all the other tribes' fathers, so that Sokka could have had more than dim memories of how to act when different clans came together to trade. Because Sokka had been trying really hard to keep it together once the negotiations got serious, but he didn't know how to talk to these people. Just like he hadn't known how to talk in the Northern Water Tribe's court. Like he'd made of mess of things speaking with his father's troops before the invasion. And maybe these Fire Nation people would have always found some reason to take offense to a barbarian kid trying to talk sense into them, but at least Sokka might've had some idea of whether what he was doing was as rude as Zuko and his advisors acted. When he'd poked that report this morning and asked what it was, Fire Lord Anger Problems had looked ready to immolate him on the spot. It was a question! And an illustrative poke! He hadn't run over the guy's seal-kitten with his sled! The ministers scowled when he talked with his hands and glowered when he talked them through the other nations' views on things and just plain glared when he just plain talked.
He wished dad was here to deal with this instead, but dad was in one of their prisons (please, please be in prison; if no other wish of Sokka's ever came true let this be the one that did). He wished the Earth King wasn't an idiot who'd probably been eaten by his bear a dozen yards past Chameleon Bay, or that Long Feng could be trusted alone with an innocent civilian and a glowy light, or the Generals weren't holding their country together because each of them expected a piece of it at the end. He wished Arnook wasn't holed up in the North building a steel fleet and Kyoshi had any political pull of which to speak and Bumi wasn't wolf-batshit crazy. He wished there was literally anyone else who could have been handling these pre-negotiations that might open the door to some kind of actual peace, but 'willing' and 'capable' were alarmingly mutually exclusive at the national leadership level. Which, you know. Explained why a band of literal children had to end the war.
Essentially, Sokka wished adults didn't suck so hard. And if they could have gotten their act together about a century ago, that would have been great.
So yeah. He wished for a lot of things. But watching Iroh take down Zuko? Not on the wish-list.
He'd have thought it was; replacing Fire Lord Perma-Scowl with Fire Lord Gives-Great-Hugs? That sounded like a very practical and achievable Sokka-wish. So it had come with some Sokka-surprise when he'd been sitting at that table wondering how to even start explaining that no one can own the oceans, what even was that map of Zuko's, what did owning an ocean mean and why would you want to and if this was about fishing rights, that was cool and they could set some general harvest limits and this-is-our-ancestral-seasonal-hunting-spot-not-yours rules like any reasonable tribe, when suddenly Zuko was standing and shouting and flame-daggering and when had Iroh decided to challenge his nephew for the throne, how was this a thing, goddamn it adults Sokka couldn't take you anywhere. They should have turned Iroh down and just kidnapped some random firebending child to teach Aang; it had worked fine for the other elements.
And before he'd been able to figure out a non-maximally-insulting way of voicing any of that, it was already over. And Zuko—who sucked about as hard as the rest of them at this peace-talks thing but had been doing a fantastic job of shouting at his own advisors just as much as he shouted at them—was… was doing that crazy-laugh thing on the ground. And was no longer Fire Lord. Which Sokka would have thought he'd be okay with, but oh boy was he ever not, and he did not want to think about why but oh hey there went his brain anyway.
(Sokka's brain wondered why his side of the table couldn't have just walked out when Zuko told them to leave, and sent Toph back to drag him off to his own doctor. Zuko, like the suicidal moron he clearly was, had apparently decided he was okay with the World's Most Casually Abusive Twelve-Year-Old manhandling him. Sokka was not above taking advantage of that. Would have taken advantage of that. If he'd thought of it in time, dammit brain.)
(And Sokka's brain was really uncomfortable with how convenient it was for the White Lotus to have one of their grandmasters on the throne. Also on Sokka's growing list of discomforts: that the old dragon had been teaching him pai sho strategies, and some of them were coming to mind a little too readily. Like 'the best moves lead to victory on multiple fronts.' And 'never place a piece to win a round when there is the opportunity to take the game.' He wondered if Iroh had thought about any of that as he decided to escalate the situation rather than withdraw, or if playing to win was just years and years of instinct for him.)
(Sokka's heart trusted Iroh. But Sokka's brain had a feeling Zuko had trusted Iroh, too. And it would be nice, just once, to meet a Fire Nation royal and not feel like he was playing into their hands, however peace-loving and genial. Another item for the wish list.)
In conclusion, the Agni Kai had been two hours ago and Sokka's thoughts were primarily a long continuous scream of not okay with this on many levels that he had not yet even begun to process, and he was going to keep following Iroh around and not-asking-him-all-of-Sokka's-brain's-questions until his internal screaming had petered out some.
"Do we need to leave?" Sokka asked, sticking extremely close to the old dragon's side as Iroh sedately walked through the palace like he hadn't just overthrown its lord and his nephew. Which was, for the record, one of the things Sokka was not okay with. To a surprising extent he hadn't know prior to it happening. It was fundamentally unnerving to have the whole family doesn't mean as much in the Fire Nation thing thrown in his face from Iroh, when he'd been bracing for it from Zuko. It was kind of like cresting a snowbank and expecting the wind to blow at his front and getting his spear all braced, but nope, it was blowing from behind and now he was flat on his face and still not quite sure how he'd gotten there.
The servants and the guards weren't giving them the stink-eye as they passed. They were stepping out of the way and bowing low in a way they distinctly hadn't for Zuko. Which should have meant that they respected Iroh more, but Sokka had this twisting feeling in his stomach telling him it was the exact opposite.
"You should return to our rooms," Iroh said. "I assure you, this is quite normal for the palace. Things were… unusually rowdy under my nephew."
"Yeah. Because they liked him more, right? And they don't like us, right?" Crazy as it sounded, they'd seemed to find Zuko's inhuman persistence and occasional bouts of ineffectual yelling to be endearing.
Iroh didn't answer. He merely stopped in front of a door with his hands tucked up his sleeves, staring straight ahead as if expecting it to open itself. It did, because a servant ran over to get it for him. Which they'd also tried to do for Zuko, but Former Fire Lord Jerkface was really good at getting a head start and opening them himself. Which had been consistently funny to watch in a way that Sokka could almost respect, because it was really weird standing here and letting someone do basic life things for him.
Inside the door was some kind of really fancy gold-inlays-on-the-wooden-ceiling infirmary and Sokka realized suddenly why they were here and okay, maybe he should have gone back to the room after all, because Zuko's laughter was still echoing around his head and… it was not okay.
That silver-haired guard captain was talking with a guy who was clearly a doctor, in the same way Yugoda up at the North Pole had been. There was just a kind of I know twenty ways to set bones and it goes the other way too so don't sass me young man look they shared, even though this guy was tall and pale and stern-faced and Yugoda was short and dark and smiling. The guy stood as Iroh entered, and everyone in the room whose name wasn't 'Sokka' bowed absurdly low.
"How is my nephew?" Iroh asked. "Has he woken yet?"
"He's resting, sir," the guard captain said. Which was, Sokka noted, not an answer to either question.
"I see," Iroh said, holding her gaze. And she held his. And they had a high-stakes blinking-contest, while Sokka's brain tried not to wonder how many palace guards it would take to bring Iroh down. He hoped that wasn't what the captain was thinking, too. Eventually Iroh turned to the doctor, like he hadn't just failed to assert his eyeball dominance. "I wish to be informed when my nephew is ready for visitors."
"Yes, Fire Lord Iroh." The doctor bowed again. "If I may, would it be possible to speak with the waterbender? It would be helpful in formulating Prince Zuko's treatment plan if I knew what she has already done."
"I will request that she visit you. In the mean time, I require a sleep aid. Four doses, I think."
Sokka could actually see the guy biting back his curiosity. Apparently one did not ask the Fire Lord why do you need that in the middle of the afternoon, or should I be concerned. Which was unfortunate, because those were definitely Sokka's questions. He'd rather not be the one asking them and looking like the idiot who didn't know what his own side was planning. Another thing that wasn't okay: Iroh's communication skills. They'd had this talk, the please tell us your plans before we are in the middle of them talk, but it had stuck about as well as the please don't flick dirt in the vicinity of the food preparations discussion had gone with Toph.
The doctor prepared the doses from a container he'd already had on his desk, which pretty much told Sokka the state Zuko was in. Though having seen the teen walk through a blizzard after fighting Katara after drenching himself in polar waters, Sokka had to wonder how many doses it had taken to put him down. There wasn't any unhinged laughter from behind that closed door, so probably Former Fire Lord Couldn't-Have-Given-Sokka-Better-Nightmares-If-He'd-Tried really was resting. Or curled up on his side wheeze-chuckling quietly because he'd finally run out of breath and only then did anyone dare to touch him.
How much more human do you want me to be, Water Tribe?
Sokka would have gladly gone his whole life without having a concrete answer to that. But he should have known that Zuko didn't do rhetorical questions.
Once Iroh had a little red packet of sleepy-time powder in his hands, he went to the door. And stared at it. The guard captain herself opened it for him, and Katara was right, these people bowed too much.
"I will require your assistance, Captain Izumi," Iroh said. Once the captain was done bowing and closing doors behind them and bowing again, she followed at their heels like a particularly stiff-tailed polar bear dog.
Lightning boomed, off in Azula-land. That had been… happening a lot today. Sokka stared up at the ceiling as they walked.
"What are we going to do about that?"
"I will handle it. Please, return to the others."
"Oh no. Oh no no no, you are not facing Crazy Blue alone. I know you don't want Aang with you in case you need to make with solving the problem, and Toph is acting weird, but Katara and I—"
"Water against lightning? Your sister's own element will conduct the cold fire to her heart."
"Okay, so just you and me—"
"Azula is a bending prodigy."
A part of Sokka's brain noted that Iroh always called her Azula, never my niece. The rest of him was finding newer, more alarming ways to be not okay with this. "I'm practically a swordmaster, if you round up—"
"I can help."
Iroh set a hand on his shoulder. All warm and familiar and comforting and still not okay. "Return to our rooms. I have tea to make."
For a second that statement joggled around Sokka's brain like a lose package on a sled, out of place and what even was it. Then his eyes focused on the little red packet, and it clicked home.
"Oh. Oh. Tea," he said. "Right. ...I could still help. Just in case."
"She is a firebender, Sokka."
And he wasn't. And judging by the reactions around the table this morning, firebenders would literally rather be dead than be non-benders. And sure Iroh was friends with Master Piandao, but Piandao was a legendary swordsman and the only non-bender Sokka had noticed in the White Lotus' ranks. So. Sokka and his growing competence with the stabbity-stab probably looked like bad backup, from where Iroh was standing. Maybe not even backup at all, just a Water Tribe boy holding a literal lightning rod.
He twisted all that bitterness around into a worried smile. "Be careful, Fire Lord. Team Avatar has some things they need you for, still."
Iroh smiled, and went with his guard captain to make tea for his niece. And Sokka went back to the Gaang's room. No one even tried to assassinate him on the way there, though some clerk-y looking people scuttled to the side of the hall and bowed ridiculously low, like he was… the friend of their new Fire Lord.
He was friends with the Fire Lord. That was going to take some getting used to.
In the back of the kitchen, away from where the sous-chef was sorting out his staff following his sudden field promotion, the off-duty guards were talking. As quietly as they could, because the kitchen staff were gossips, and this… wasn't talk they wanted getting around. It was just talk they needed to get out in the open, so they knew they weren't alone.
"This is wrong. We all know it's wrong but we're just sitting here—"
"He lost the Agni Kai. Two Agni Kais, to two Fire Lords. Maybe Agni's trying to say something."
One of the cooks scuttled past with a tray, and shoved it in the oven. And waited there, inhaling and exhaling to fiddle with the fire's temperature. And, in general, fooling no one. The guards stayed silent until the cook gave up and left. Then they re-huddled.
"The Avatar cheated, you all saw it—Fire Lord Zuko didn't make a single flame."
"Wait, what? What's that got to do with the Avatar?"
"I was right outside the room. He admitted he can take away bending. Did it to Fire Lord Ozai, why not to his son?"
"No. ...What. No. And he…? To the Fire L—to Prince Zuko?"
"The Avatar didn't even touch him. It was probably one of the generals poisoning him; he's been looking like crap all week. Worse than usual, I mean."
"He's been looking like crap because he's barely sleeping, we've all seen the light through his door."
The cook scurried back, peering in the oven like anything would be done two minutes after being put in. The guards turned as one, and glared. This proved sufficient to earn them a sheepish shrug and another few minutes alone.
"I was in the room. He made flame-daggers right before Ir— Fire Lord Iroh challenged, strong as any I've seen. And he didn't eat or drink anything before the fight. It wasn't poison."
"But I'm telling you, the Avatar didn't touch him."
"Who knows if he needs to touch him!"
"If he doesn't even need to touch someone to take their bending away, how are we going to stop him? Not that we're going to, I'm not suggesting— Crap, do I need to visit sick relatives?"
"I didn't hear anything."
There were murmurs of agreement tablewide.
"...Someone needs to do something. It's not right."
More agreement. And no suggestions given voice. This was the Fire Lord's palace: for the last hundred years, mutterings had gone exactly nowhere. When Azulon ordered the dragons killed, when Ozai took the throne from under his grieving brother, when a thirteen-year-old had been burned and banished as an example of what place compassion had in the court.
Lightning cracked over the palace. Again. It was getting more insistent.
Captain Izumi beckoned them from the doorway. "I need ten of you."
Ten more were already outside. There were very few people who warranted twenty royal firebenders. Given that Iroh was watching the proceedings and Zuko was already down, that narrowed things down significantly.
The water between her hands was too warm, like the rest of this country. Katara shaped it into a perfect sphere, a penguin-otter, a fish-urchin, and it was tepid and awful between her palms. She could have frozen it, but tepid and awful was how she felt.
Sokka shot through the half-open door that some servant was trying to open for him, and for just a moment she thought there was a fight, that they could win their way free and leave. But he just flopped on the floor cushions next to Aang and stared up at the ceiling and rubbed his temples.
"So Iroh's going to poison Azula," he said, like that was a normal conversation starter.
The water between her hands collapsed. She scowled, and coaxed it back up from the tatami mats. "He's what?"
"Not dead-poison, just sleepy-time poison. And I'm pretty sure they're keeping Zuko sedated." He pressed both hands over his eyes. "Is anyone else not okay with how that just went down?"
Toph growled something incoherent. She hadn't uncrossed her arms since they'd hauled Zuko off and not let her come with.
Aang had pretty much been hugging his legs since then. "...At least the Fire Nation is on our side, now."
"Yeah," Sokka said. "Until one of those advisors dead-poisons Iroh. ...Man, what are we even going to eat."
"Is that really the most important—" Toph started.
Aang scooted a little closer to Katara. "Is Zuko going to be okay?"
"He'll be fine, Aang," Katara snapped.
"He looked really—"
"It's Zuko. He won't die that easily."
Toph rounded on her. "We both felt that messed up thing his heart was doing, Sugar Queen—"
(Stuttering, stalling, trying too hard under her hands and not hard enough at all.)
"—I haven't felt that since—"
(Aang on the ship, those first few days of his coma, when she thought that just-one-more session would make everything okay again. She knew how to heal that, now. She was possibly the most skilled healer in the world when it came to lightning damage. And she'd used her knowledge on Zuko.)
"—And another thing! Why did you have to keep popping that stupid cork, you just about gave him a heart attack every time. Did you think that was funny?"
"What?" Katara raised her eyes from her water, and frowned. "I just… do that when I'm thinking." When she was nervous, she was absolutely not going to say. "I was doing it under the table. It's not like he knew."
"Don't even try it, Sugar Queen. He jumped so hard he fell over when you did it the first time."
"Yeah, when we were sitting right next to him, not a giant meeting table away! Not everyone has ears on their feet, Toph."
"How did you not see him flinching? What is wrong with your sighted-people eyes? He's just trying to do the best he can—"
"Yeah, well," Sokka said, "while I admit either tentative belief in his sincerity or great admiration for his ability to con us while keeping up the shouty hot-head act, the guy needs to—needed to— take a nap and think things over, not throw together proposals every time somebody said something. I didn't need fifteen pages on why every idea I've ever had or will have on trade deals and tariffs is completely wrong. ...The graphs were nice, though. Does he just have people whose job it is to sit around and draw those?"
Her fish-urchin was growing more spikes by the moment. By the heartbeat.
(Zuko, whose heart had felt exactly as weak and fragile as Aang's.)
"I keep telling you—" Toph was too loud, too close, and Katara didn't want to hear it.
She stood. And slammed the sliding door open so hard the guard stationed outside jumped.
"Where are you going?" Aang asked.
She didn't turn around. "To keep Appa company."
She slammed the door closed behind her.
"Probably a bad idea, Aang," her brother said, muffled only slightly through the paper screens.
Appa whuffed a greeting. Katara sank down against his side, leaning back against too-warm fur in the too-warm sun. She bent her too-warm water, and tried not to think about how thin Zuko had felt under her hands, or how Iroh had to hold him down so he wouldn't crawl away from her. How breakable-scared he'd felt under her hands.
(Or of the boy in the catacombs, whose heart had been scared-strong under her hand as she touched his face. What had happened to him?)
Huian did not startle as the door opened behind her. She simply set her cloak aside, like it was a perfectly normal thing to have been wearing on a warm autumn day.
It was one of her staff. Fortunately. "Lady Huian, you're back. Prin—Fire Lord Iroh, he's... requesting we bring lunch to Her Highness."
Huian did not freeze; it would never do for her staff to see her as anything but composed. A steady fire they could gather around, when they needed strength. "He is not going himself?"
Thunder rolled overhead. Again. As it had been for hours now, with no Zuko to calm Azula back down. Lady Huian's servants were not known for their skill in redirecting lightning. If she sent one in, they might very well die.
"No," the servant said. "He… he's gathering guards. I think we're the distraction."
It is the Fire Lord's duty to protect his people, a very old and unconscionably naive part of her whispered. A pretty lie she'd learned at her grandfather's feet, and set aside her first day working under Azulon, packed up and stowed away with the rest of her childhood.
(Where had Zuko learned it? Certainly not from his grandfather.)
"Tell him I'll be right there."
"Lady Huian?" her servant asked, not understanding at first. Huian moved to her closet, and picked out the very best of her serving clothes, to replace the rough-spun street clothes she'd worn to the dock. There was no excuse for poor style. "Lady Huian, you— you can't go—"
"I can't ask any of you to go, either."
(When had she unboxed all these toys? Honor and duty and all the rest.)
"I'll handle it," she said, the lie confident in her smile. "Go."
(The stupid boy couldn't even put his robes on straight, couldn't even last to his third month as Fire Lord; she'd known before he was ever burned that his father would cast him aside. Had distanced herself appropriately.)
(And then he had come back, the burn as horrid as she'd heard and his manners worse than she remembered, and all his pretty ideas on what a Fire Lord should be scattered about where anyone could step on them. Or trip over them.)
Lady Huian had adjusted a fidgeting boy's robes this morning and sent him into a fight this afternoon. She was no bender, but she thought she knew what an inner flame felt like.
Zuzu was late Zuzu wasn't coming Zuzu feared her hated her despised her scorned her ignored her had given up on her—
The palace outside her burned window frames was as quiet as it had ever been under Ozai. Quiet and respectful as the Fire Lord's court should be. Not that undignified riot of smiles and chatter the servants had gotten away with under Zuko's lax rule. The servants scurried and scampered and left her when she called out to them, the only time she would call out to them, she didn't need them didn't want them she just (wanted) (needed)—
Azula threw herself down on her nest of singed pillows, and resolved to punish her brother severely when he did dare to show his face. He knew the consequences of disrespecting his Fire Lord.
(It had been hours.)
(It had been hours, hadn't it?)
A servant called out quietly. Azula ran fingers through her hair and seated herself prettily—though not so prettily as to give the impression she cared —and bid the woman enter.
It was an older woman. One of those head servant types, a concept she had always found amusing: a head rabbit-mouse, scurrying about a dragon's warren like they owned the dirt and scraps of bone. She bowed well enough, though, and Azula eventually allowed her to rise.
"Where is my brother?"
"The Fire Lord has been very busy today," The woman laid out her lunch with quick efficiency and steady hands and Azula contemplated whether she preferred that or trembling. She snatched the tea cup straight from the woman, just to watch her flinch, but she didn't.
Perhaps there was something to this head rabbit-mouse business after all. She drank, long and slow, savoring the moment before the woman realized her mistake.
She was too stupid to, of course. Azula really must do everything herself.
"You said 'the Fire Lord.' Am I not your Fire Lord?"
The woman took in a breath—a shaky breath, good, finally—and had the audacity to raise her head and meet her betters' gaze.
"Fire Lord Iroh has been very busy today," the rabbit-mouse said.
Her cup broke itself on the ground, tea drops and porcelain shards scattering over floor and servant and Azula like they were all equal. The woman was sitting there in perfect seiza with her hands steady on her lap and her chin high and her gaze still on Azula's, watching her, seeing her, expecting something from her and she knew she knew it wasn't for herself that this thing was asked, the rabbit-mice all scurried away from her feet but Zuzu had always been appallingly tolerant of them, they liked him, they wanted to help him— (They wanted to help him.)
(She hadn't heard fire. If there'd been a fight for the throne, why hadn't she heard fire?)
(Unless he hadn't fought.)
(The rabbit-mouse held her eyes, and there was fight in them.)
"Twenty-one guards in the hall," the servant whispered. "And your uncle. Fire Lord Zuko is in the infirmary. He isn't injured but they have him drugged, and the Avatar may have taken his bending away—"
Azula listened. And when the woman who was a lion-ferret, how had Azula ever mistaken her for a mouse, when she was done, Azula nodded her head in an appropriate show of gratitude and not a hair more.
"I strongly suggest," she said, "that you go out the window."
The servant looked uncertain for the first time since she came into the room.
"I never did like that door," Azula clarified, blue fire on her hands.
The servant's eyes went wide. Azula gave her a very generous ten second head start. Then she breathed in, and out, and in, and did what she'd been wanting to do for the past two months (for the past fourteen years).
She started burning this palace to the ground.
Sokka and Toph and Aang all stared in the same direction. It had been a very loud direction. And... continued to be.
"Uh," Sokka said.
" Azula," Toph said, which was about as helpful, and significantly more obvious.
Aang did his Aang thing, and raced off in a swirl of wind without waiting for the rest of them.
An Avatar-leash. Sokka wished for one.
Azula punched fire at her uncle's face and felt better for the first time in weeks. She would laugh, but cackling mid-fight was a rookie mistake that interfered terribly with breath control, she'd learned that when she was seven and Zuzu had won against her for the very last time. She smiled instead, vicious white sharp-toothed, and trusted her flames to carry her emotions.
Uncle went on the defensive, and his guards took the offensive while he shielded them, and twenty-odd people could not fight effectively in a hallway. Azula kindly took down the walls for them, and leapt-rolled-smiled out of the way of the falling ceiling into one of the palace's many courtyards. A few less than twenty-one guards stumbled out of the burning wreckage to chase her. And uncle. He wasn't smiling at all, the big Frowny-Face. Aww, was he having a bad day?
His hands moved in a swift circle, faster than she ever could (yet), and lightning crackled her way.
Azula caught it, and redirected, and wondered why he'd ever thought that would work. Zuzu had been demonstrating the redirection form for ages.
Uncle caught the bolt. And redirected. And by the intense look on his face, he apparently saw nothing funny in playing lightning tag with his niece. Was this the first time he'd ever played with her? Hmm.
Bored now. Azula redirected the lightning into the chest of a handy guard, and trusted that Uncle would learn his lesson. No more of that, please.
She moved her own arms in a circle, and watched him brace for another redirect. Instead she called flame whips, and smiled ever-so-wide as he was forced to dodge, off-step and off-balance.
(He was fighting at full strength, not tired at all. Not like he would have been if he'd really fought earlier. Had Zuzu sunk to his knees? Had he begged?)
Azula dyed the courtyard blue. She was a daughter of Agni, her light closer and hotter than her ancestor's.
Uncle's guards kept getting in the way of her perfect kill shots. Oh well; at least they weren't wasted.
Uncle let them. Zuzu wouldn't have.
(Zuko was so trusting, just like those damn turtleducks he loved, willing to swim up to the first hand that showed kindness but those were exactly the hands that are close enough to hurt.)
"I must admit," Azula panted, into one of those little lulls that fights have, when one was holding a guard by the throat and one's uncle was hesitating adorably. "I'm impressed. Playing the long game, were you uncle?" That flicker in his eyes, yes, she was right. (She was right she was right she was always right, she should never have hidden away, this wouldn't have happened if she'd been on the throne.) "You knew you couldn't beat father, but you trained Zuko. Poorly, I might add. You took him from father and from me and you played the caring uncle. Set up the child-Avatar to take out our father for you. Set up Zuko to take his place. And then you broke him, just because you could. Because he's father's and you made him yours, and you didn't need him anymore. One last backhand to your brother. I can understand that."
The guard whimpered and clawed at her hand and it was really all quite undignified. Azula let the heat crawling under her skin bite and gnaw its way free, hotter and hotter and what would Uncle do, there were so many people around, would he still pretend like he cared about them?
"But Uncle. Zuzu is my brother. My toy. You do not. Get to break. My toys."
Uncle threw lightning again. A fair move, given that it took two hands to redirect, and one of hers was otherwise occupied. She jerked the guard into its path, and tsked.
"Rude. Now, what was I saying?" Toys, something something. Oh well.
She brought fire to her legs and boosted her speed to close the distance. The fat old dragon was better at range than in close quarters.
Should be better at range than in close quarters.
She should be better, but she missed a step there, and another, and—
And Uncle was waving the guards away, now. Didn't need them, now. Was smiling, now. Just a little curling at the edges of his lips, and had it always been there or was she imaging things—
(Was this really happening or was she imagining it?)
(Where was Zuzu?)
"Did you enjoy your tea, Azula?" the vindictive bastard asked, just before the world went dark.
He assisted somewhat in hastening it along, and the last thing she saw was stupid nonsense her brain threw up, of the Avatar suddenly appearing and a no-name guard stepping between her and the child and her uncle like rabbit-mice could defend dragons—
"Captain Izumi," Fire Lord Iroh said, the first he had spoken since this fight began. "Please step aside."
"I won't let you take her bending." Decades of loyal service compelled her to add, "Sir."
The Avatar clutched some kind of staff to his chest, and stared up at her with wide eyes. "I… I wasn't going to. I just wanted to help."
"Captain Izumi," the Fire Lord said. "We will not harm her. Stand down."
She lowered her gaze, and stepped to the side, and wondered when following her lord's orders had started to feel like treason. He caught her arm. Squeezed, gently. Spoke gently. His eyes were anything but.
"Can I expect your support, Captain? Or must you visit sick relatives?"
"...I serve the Fire Lord," she said.
"Which one?" The princess on the ground giggled, and then laughed. She looked far too much like her brother as they forced another cup of tea down her throat and took her to the infirmary. Her guards went along, not as escorts but as patients. Far too few of her guards.
Iroh still gripped her arm. She was not sure she could pull free, even if she'd had the spirit to. "Now, Captain Izumi. You will tell me exactly what happened to my nephew this summer."
Another one of those not-so-disguised servants went hurrying past, expensive shoes flashing under the hem of her modest robe. The same one who'd been dragging a crying girl in her wake earlier, Shenji thought. And cursed. Because Agni-damned knife and fish with their dead beady eyes and he just wanted to go home.
"Boy," the fish cart owner scolded him. Just that. She'd run out of words for him, and now just… had a tone.
"Sorry, ma'am." He stuck his finger in his mouth, and tasted dirt and copper, fish slime and grill smoke, a hint of spices he'd started to like and he hated that.
He was trying to decide whether to bandage it up—and how many more bandages his poor shirt could make —when the guards marched into the square, and a royal herald with them. They made an understated production of posting the announcement up. An equally understated one of reading it. But then, they didn't need to do much when the crowd had gone grave-silent the moment they'd appeared.
When the lightning that had flashed over the palace all afternoon had been replaced with thick curls of smoke.
"On this day, Zuko, son of Ursa and Ozai, stood before Agni and was found wanting; His hand and His blessing have moved to Fire Lord Iroh, son of Ilah and Azulon—"
Shenji set down the knife. Just… set it down, away from his shaking hands.
"Sick relatives, boy?" Old Sakura asked him. Quiet and low, barely moving her mouth, barely glancing at him.
He didn't know whether to nod or not, to run or not. But he met her gaze—dangerous, stop, he couldn't do that, look back at the ground quick quick—and whatever was on his face in that instant was answer enough.
She paid him full wages for the day, which he hadn't expected. Even if he'd worked the whole day, he hadn't expected it; so many of the shops and ships and stalls short-changed day laborers. And she wrapped up a hot fresh-cooked fish for him, and didn't make any big show of it. Just shooed him away when he choked on his thanks.
Shenji bowed low, not sure if it was too low, his hands awkwardly sculpting the Fire Nation flame. And then he left, as swiftly as any palace servant. Which was so absurdly close to the truth he almost wanted to cry.
Iroh was Fire Lord.
Iroh, who by all accounts really liked his nephew, and Shenji didn't know where today's announcement fit into that, but he had to get back to his master and let them all know, let them deal with this, find a way to keep them all safe. He was just an apprentice, he'd never signed up for this.
(Iroh's nephew, Zuko, who they'd kept locked up in a place that made Lake Logai look like it really was a vacation retreat.)
(Zuko, who'd extended a blanket pardon to any banished servants, Earth Kingdom ones included, but how stupid did he think they were?)
(Shenji had been debating being that stupid. Just… just to check. And if he got locked up or burned alive then at least everyone else would know, and it would be over and it wasn't like any of them could go home again they had to make this work—)
But Azula hadn't lasted a day on the throne, and Zuko had only lasted two months, and Iroh had fought them under Ba Sing Se before they'd even been half the traitors they were now. The new Fire Lord was so far on the Avatar's side it was amazing his fire hadn't turned to air.
The Dai Li. Continued to be fucked.
AN: Credits! Mostly from FF, they had a whole week to respond to chapter 14 and boy did they ever.
Some of these things were going into the story already and some of them weren't, but I'm gonna go ahead and credit them equally because A) you all are fantastic, and B) then you have no idea which are longer plot threads, mwahaha.
Jade: wanted to see multiple outsider POVs. This took for freaking ever to write, it was all your fault. (Iloveyou.)
Breakfast: whose love of the clerks and their too-pure interactions with Zuko made me grin and start this off by ruining their day
Yue: how the servants felt about kid!Zuko and his banishment
weareagentsofnothing (posted at captainkirkk's tumblr, which is pretty much my go-to Jet-stalking place to watch peoples reactions, they are my Fairy Godkirkk): the 41st families still supporting Zuko. Because heck yeah they are. Though I imagine Ozai did his best to suppress the real story; Zuko's crew certainly seemed in the dark about his Agni Kai.
Elf Kid2.0: Sokka, on the topic of "great, the Fire Nation thinks non-bending is literally worse than death"
Spider and the Fly: Got a whole damn scene, Imma just quote their genius: 'p.s. i've got a mental picture of zuko waking up and holding his wrists together for the guards, handcuff-me-style, ready for delivery to his cell/ship/doom, and them being like "uh no you were great we're actually here for your safety?" and him, like, laughing them off like "haha, very funny joke, now hurry up and cuff me, i want my naps"'
Breakfast: suspicions that the White Lotus wanted Iroh to take over, and this may have been the plan all along
Caryolyn (and I-Tripped, and Sephiroth Cresent-Valentine, and many of you, but I stopped writing names down after awhile sorry): desired sweet sweet Azula fallout
donahermurphy: who specified that that sweet sweet Azula fallout include paranoia for poor trusting Zuko and Iroh doing this all as a long con. Honestly, in that family, a long con would make more sense than actual uncle-nephew love. Can't blame her… Quote: "she's going to think Iroh has been playing a long game. all this time. what's better for the brother who stole his throne than tempting his son into betrayal and then, at the last moment, killing the son anyway. Just to prove that the point was to mess with Ozai's toys."
Soirreb: "I'm also looking forward to seeing how Iroh will handle Azula. If she's been paying attention, she'll know how to redirect lightning, so that ought to give the old man a surprise." Boy did it ever!
AvacadoLove: The servants. Are not happy. (And microaggressions going forward are a go, please enjoy.)
XandyNZ: "He's already lost 2 Agni Kais against 2 different Fire Lords, plus his firebending is so weak it has to be a sign that Agni is saying a clear DO NOT WANT."
Flip Ants: people thinking Zuko's been poisoned, and/or the Avatar stole his firebending. (Sadly, I did not find a good place for this idea, which I loved and tried to write but couldn't quite make work: "I'd love to get a scene where various advisors work out that none of THEM had been poisoning the Fire Lord.")
Chapter 16: Conversations to the Side of Midnight
Well now that you are all fully recovered from the last two chapters, please enjoy some sibling bonding! Just what so many of you asked for.
I'm starting see what genies get out of granting wishes.
PS: We are now back to normal-sized chapters, remind me to never do 10k for one update again. I regret nothing and everything.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zuko had talked them into giving him a different room. It was still in the infirmary, but… not in the suite meant for royalty, not the part with dizzyingly large amounts of space around the bed, space that wasn't there for any reason except to make him feel small and windows so large he wouldn't have even had to duck to jump through them and just leave except they'd kept two guards inside with him the whole time watching to make sure he didn't. His new room was better. It was in some kind of isolation ward, for plagues or prisoners. Small enough he could reach out and touch the walls from his bed, and no windows, so the guards could stay outside. And there was a door, with a cold draft under it when he pressed his hand to the floor just to check. That was luxury enough.
They'd left him a candle, and a small stack of unlit ones. He… didn't know why. A joke, maybe? It should be after dark by now, probably a lot after dark, so he didn't need it. He should just blow it out, but instead he'd been diligently lighting a new one each time the flame on the last started to gutter. He'd been in this room for three candles. He didn't know how long that was compared to anything else, but it was a measurement.
Keeping track of time was a luxury, too. Uncle was already a better jailer than Ozai.
Zuko shoved his hand over his mouth, and did not laugh. It didn't work. He tried to regulate his breathing, to count to five on each inhale and exhale, he even stared at the little candle flame and pretended its flickerings were caused by him, but it didn't work. He even held his breath, but he was still—
Zuko kept holding his breath until it burned, but he could still hear the laughing.
That… wasn't him.
He glanced at his door, and the guards he knew were right out there. But it wasn't coming from their direction, and it wasn't the kind of laugh a free person would make. He slid off the bed, his bare feet touching cold tiles (easier to scrub clean than tatami, easier to disinfect once he was gone), and pressed his good ear to the wall. He walked slowly, and listened, and slid down to a crouch in the far corner of his room. It was loudest here.
"Hello?" he whispered, and the laughing stopped.
"You don't sound like mother," a voice accused.
"Zuzu, get out of my head. It's too crowded, and I don't need your stupid."
She sounded… really offended. And really, really drugged. He knew that feeling, where the world spun slowly around his head and everything was too largesmall, too slowfast, and he had to fight not to sleep because that was what they wanted and nothing good ever came from doing what others wanted of him. (He'd refused a cup of tea… awhile ago. Asked the doctor if he could just try to sleep on his own, please, he didn't want it didn't need it he was calm now. The man hadn't called in the guards to force him to drink it like back in the room with the too-big windows after Captain Izumi and Uncle's voice had left. He'd just left it on the bedside table, next to the candle.) (The doctor also hadn't left any water in the room, and Zuko didn't know whether he was supposed to just ask the guards when he got thirsty or if this was how they were going to make him drink it anyway. He'd been a lot thirstier than this for a lot longer, so there wasn't any reason to find out.)
"I'm not in your head," Zuko said. "I'm on the other side of the wall."
"Hmm. Prove it."
Zuko cast a glance at his own shut door, then knocked quietly on the wood.
There was a pause, and then she knocked back.
"....So. You're out of your wing."
"Uncle escorted me," she said breezily. "He's very considerate, our uncle."
Zuko clapped a hand over his mouth, and knew he was the one laughing this time.
"Quite," Azula agreed. "So. On your knees, or out fighting?"
It took him a moment to remember what she was talking about. It… felt like it was awhile ago, in some distant past he didn't think about anymore. "Fighting."
He didn't have to ask about her. Fighting, of course. "...How many people did you kill?"
"Do you really think I can count that high while the room is full of birds, Zuzu?"
...She was really, really drugged. Probably with something different than him, because sleep aids didn't cause hallucinations. "Um. They do get pretty loud."
"Their chirping is insufferable. Flitting and crowding and saying such nonsense, if they don't want us then what do they want from us."
"I'll let you know when I figure it out," Zuko said, and he wasn't sure they were talking about birds anymore.
It was quiet for awhile. He settled down more comfortably. Wondered if he should grab the blanket off his bed (but then he might miss something she said). Wondered if she had any water in her room, or just a cup of tea on her bedside table.
"Is father dead?" she asked. Suddenly, maybe lucidly, but still slurred-slow.
"That was stupid of them."
He didn't tell her about Ozai's bending. It… probably wouldn't help her. "The Avatar is a pacifist," he said instead.
"Also stupid. If they'd killed the airbender off, in a few years they could have had a Water Tribe savage, shouting and waving an ice spear. Much more practical."
"I don't think the other nations think about tactically killing the Avatar. Usually."
"Must I keep repeating myself, Zuzu?" By which she meant, they're stupid.
Would father have been proud of him, if he'd killed the Avatar enough times to bring the cycle back to Fire?
...Would he ever stop having thoughts that started with 'would father have been proud of him if'?
"Probably not," Azula said. "Mother left us ages ago and she certainly never shuts up."
He'd been talking out loud. Or she'd been hallucinating that he'd been. There wasn't a functional difference, in this little room with its flickering candle.
"I'm not sorry I did it," he said. "I hate father. I hate him so much. Why didn't grandfather protect us from him? The whole court had to have known what he was like, he didn't hide it—"
"Uncle never cared, you know," she said, which meant that either she was hearing a totally different conversation, or hearing this one exactly right. "He was playing you to get to father. He admitted it during our fight."
"Stop lying. He… he loves me. He said I'm like his son."
"Zuzu, he put his son in active battle like some expendable foot soldier, instead of ten miles back in a command tent. Being like his son is hardly a compliment. ...That laugh is appalling, stop it at once."
Zuko drew his knees up and pressed his face into the pants they'd given him. Silk for the former Fire Lord. It was as much a joke as candles for a former firebender. "Sorry, Azula."
"For Agni's sake, stop apologizing. If you want to laugh hysterically, laugh hysterically. You're a prince of the blood, no one has the right to shut you up."
"Except my little sister?"
"Of course. Stop laughing."
He laughed into his knees, and it… felt like a real laugh, that time.
"I don't know why the rabbit-mice all run to you," Azula groused. Which… probably meant something to her. "I'm better, anyone can see."
"You are," he agreed. "But I keep bread in my pockets."
She hmmed, as if seriously considering this statement. "So feeding the turtleducks has been a cover, all along? Devious," she finally replied, with a hint of respect.
...Zuko realized he might still be a little drugged, too. Just a little. And thirsty. "Ozai never got fooled by the bread."
"No, father is far more carnivorous. He eats them down to the bones, even their children. You were too much mother's; he didn't recognize you as his."
Zuko wasn't laughing anymore. But he kept his head down on his knees, and just… breathed. "I was his, though. I… I always was."
"You're right," Azula said, which was the closest he'd ever heard her come to saying I'm wrong. "Zuzu, you are the most wasted resource in the Fire Nation."
So now he was a natural resource, not a chewed-up puppy-cub. "I… what?"
"Father burned half your face off and you were still loyal. He should have put you in the Home Guard, or given you a division to command somewhere far enough away that you wouldn't leak honor on the palace floors." She sniffed. He could imagine her raised chin, her imperious gaze at her own shadow-dark wall. "If he'd done that to me, I'd have killed him a year later."
Zuko laughed once, startled. "A year?"
"On the anniversary, of course. Long enough that he wouldn't suspect, clever enough that no one could prove it, but everyone would know."
"Why didn't I think of that," Zuko said, a little sardonically.
"Because you're a Dum-Dum who shoved his pockets full of breadcrumbs, like the rabbit-mice matter. They couldn't save you, Zuzu. This time or last time or ever. The lion-ferret roared but the dragon couldn't help; the nets had already tangled her wings even though she didn't see until she tried to fly."
"...That's rough," Zuko settled on, because he had to say something. She'd been really impassioned.
"Loyalty is the scarcest commodity in court," she continued, perfectly lucid and perfectly reasonable, as if that last speech hadn't happened. "...I wouldn't have killed you. When I reclaimed my crown."
"That's… nice?" Less nice that she'd been actively thinking about it, but nice she'd decided on not killing him. He'd… been wondering. "I wouldn't have killed you, either."
"I know that, Dum-Dum."
"You were already Fire Lord."
He wasn't sure that keeping the crown warm for a few weeks really counted, but he wasn't going to argue with a drugged fourteen year old. "So were you," he said instead.
"Congratulations," she drolled, "neither of us are as fratricidal as father and uncle."
He was laughing again. Great. "Thanks, Lala."
"If you speak that name where anyone else can hear, I will rescind my moratorium on fratricide."
Zuko smirked. "I think that's what makes you Lala."
She hadn't actually said not to call her that. Just not while anyone else was around. "Lala," he said again, the smirk in his voice.
"I will hurt you," she said. "I won't kill you, but I will hurt you." But she didn't light the wall between them on fire. Which might have been the drugs, but so far as he could hear, she didn't even try. "...It's difficult to picture you dead, Zuzu. That's not a privilege I can extend to most people."
"Thanks," he said, and wished he was from a family where he wasn't sincere about that. A family where she'd been joking in the first place.
They kept talking. For hours or maybe days as the candle flickered on the table, lasting longer than it should. They talked like they hadn't talked since he was seven and having nightmares (and she was five, and stuck a foot out to trip him in the hall as he went crying to mother, and the guards found them in the morning curled up in one of the secret passageways, still in the pillow fort they'd built while playing Earth Kingdom Assassins.)
(He'd always been the one assassinated. She had been very insistent about that, so that she could avenge his death with fire and cackling and the casual destruction of each of his toy soldiers in turn as they served as elite earthbenders only disguised as Fire infantry. And she always promised it would be his turn to avenge her next, but it never was.)
He didn't know when he fell asleep. He woke to a gentle knock on the door, and a servant easing inside the room.
"Your Highness?" the man's eyes went to the bed, first. He looked incredibly alarmed to find it empty. Even more so, to find Zuko groggily huddled in a corner. "...Please come with me, Your Highness. We'll get you dressed. The Fire Lord wishes to speak with you."
Zuko glanced back at the wall. Wondered if he should say goodbye, or let her know where he was going. His persistent stare at a blank wall only put the servant more on edge. Zuko knocked twice, lightly, and stood up. He felt like walking should be hard—his legs shaky or weak or something —but he actually felt better than he had in… probably since Ozai had thrown lightning at him, and he'd redirected for the first time in his life, then run half-way across the city with the aftereffects still burning in his chest. The waterbender knew what she was doing, apparently. (She would have had to, to save the Avatar after Ba Sing Se.)
He followed the servant steadily, out the door and past his two guards, and tried to seem completely casual when he glanced at the room next to his.
It was open. And empty.
"Your Highness?" the servant asked.
Zuko didn't feel like laughing. He just felt cold again. He could… ask. If Azula had really been there, if they'd moved her before he'd woken up. He could see windows again; the sun was higher than he'd thought. Closer to noon than sunrise. Uncle probably would have wanted her moved to an institution as soon as possible; if he'd wanted her staying in the palace he would have left her alone, she wasn't hurting anyone.
He could ask. But if they said no, he…
He didn't ask.
Zuko followed the servant. People opened doors for him and bowed to him, bathed him and dressed him, firebent his hair dry with warm hands because they knew he couldn't do it himself, everyone knew now.
The woman who always fussed over his robes wasn't there. When he asked, they told him she had to leave the palace. Sick relatives.
"I hope they get better soon," Zuko said. The warm hands paused in his hair, then finished tying off his topknot with clinical efficiency. It felt lighter, without the crown.
"...The Fire Lord is waiting, Your Highness," the servant said, and didn't meet his gaze a single time as they walked through the halls.
Everyone was very respectful as they passed, just like they'd been when Ozai and Azulon ruled. A real Fire Lord was back on the throne.
Zuko kept his head down, and followed where he was led.
Trivia: Most of the dialogue in this chapter was written back when I posted chapter eleven (AKA the start of the Trust Countdown). The Agni Kai with Uncle + this post-breakdown sibling bonding whispered through a wall were the seed images that started this whole fic. And we're almost done with the prologue, wee! I cannot wait to hit the main story, you don't even know.
It was one of those sunny semi-formal tea rooms no one but Uncle really used. Uncle ordered everyone else from the room, servants and guards alike. They hesitated a moment, and the guard closest to Zuko glanced towards him (which was funny, a little. What did they think he was going to do, attack the Dragon of the West with his bare hands?) They left a little too slowly, but with less backtalk than they'd have given Zuko if he'd tried giving the same order.
...He wasn't Fire Lord anymore. Uncle was. Zuko needed to... to bow or something, but before his mind could catch up with the thought and make him move, before this is your Fire Lord could override this is Uncle, before any of that, Uncle bowed first. Brushed his robes flat and lowered himself to the floor, to his knees, his forehead touching the tatami and now Zuko knew he was going insane because this was the Fire Lord (this was Uncle)—
"What I have done to you cannot be forgiven," Uncle said, "to ask would be an insult. But I am sorry, Zuko, so sorry—"
Uncle's topknot wasn't as perfect as Zuko's, a part of his mind, a stupid part of his mind, noticed. Either he'd done it himself or it had been a long time since a servant retouched it.
"—Miss Toph had warned us of your… condition, the damage Azula had done to you. I could not stand by, but I should have found another way—"
Uncles robes fit perfectly in a way Zuko's never had, always too loose on his frame no matter how much the tailors chased him for fittings, but there was a place on Uncle's back where the belt had flipped over itself in a way that a servant would have reached over and just fixed on Zuko.
"—Captain Izumi has informed me of what Ozai—"
His head spun and he knew he'd been missing words and if this kept up any longer, he might start losing time again, and he hated that hated that and he wanted to be angry so bad but it wasn't safe to be angry, this was his Fire Lord, and Zuko guaranteed that Captain Izumi hadn't told him the whole story because the only ones who'd been in that room had been him and Ozai. She'd know what happened at the prison and whatever Ozai said happened in the throne room, but Zuko hadn't told anyone.
"—hate me for as long as you need to, nephew. It is your—"
"Please. Stop doing that. Just… just stand."
Uncle didn't. But at least he sat up. And… Zuko sat, too. He needed to. He managed to do it smoothly, even, so it didn't look so much like falling.
"Can I… would questions be too impertinent, Fire Lord Iroh?"
Uncle flinched, but nodded his permission.
"Where is my sister?" he asked, hands flat on his knees and back as straight and breathing as steady as he could make them. Because if the world was going insane today he needed to know how insane he was.
"I have moved her to an institution in Amigara. They… specialize in cases like hers. She will be safe there while they treat her, and you will be safe from her. She will not hurt you anymore, nephew."
He said that like he thought it was Zuko's main concern. Amigara. That was… on the outskirts of Caldera, outside of the crater. A rural town. Not nice enough for the nobles to vacation in, but apparently good enough to hide away their undesirable relatives.
He swallowed, and asked the question that had gone unanswered since last night. "How many guards did she kill?"
Uncle looked slightly taken aback, like he had not expected that question, or not expected Zuko to know enough of the situation to ask that question. "Four. The others will recover; Miss Katara was able to help them in time. She is quite adept with injuries caused by fire, and quite possibly the only waterbending healer with such experience with lightning. We are fortunate to have her."
By which he meant Zuko was fortunate. Zuko let out a slow breath, trying to get the anger out before it even got started. It was nothing but hot ash in his throat, anyway.
Uncle knew the names, at least. He recited them with the same solemnity that Zuko received them. They were… faces. People he'd seen in the hall or yelled at for being impertinent, who'd protected him until it was their duty to protect Iroh instead, who'd deserved to serve a royal family that wasn't tearing itself apart. There'd probably been a time when the Royal Guard could be loyal to the entire royal family without contradiction, instead of just the Fire Lord. It… would have been nice to have been born however many centuries ago that was.
It would have been nice if Uncle understood the first thing about his niece. Azula… as much as she threatened, he'd couldn't picture her killing for fun, only for a purpose. It wasn't a morality issue. He wouldn't kid himself that it was, especially when those were four of their people she'd murdered. But her perfectionism abhorred waste; wasted energy, wasted actions, wasted lives that could have been grovelling in their rightful place at her feet instead of cluttering up her floor. Ba Sing Se had been the most bloodless victory of the war, even if the lack of casualties had probably made it easier for the Earth Kingdom and Uncle's group to take back in the end. ...Which was an observation he was never going to share with her.
She must have felt really cornered by Uncle, or had something important he'd gotten in the way of her doing. Otherwise she'd have just gone around the guards, danced them in circles to prove not just that she was superior but that she was so far beyond them as to be untouchable. Uncle didn't get that. He'd… never really tried to get Azula.
Uncle was waiting for him, patient as he had always been. The only thing missing was a tea cup in his hand. A conversation was serious when Uncle forwent tea.
Zuko held his breath until he was sure the laughter wouldn't come, then let the air out slowly.
"How long were you working with… that group?" It was obvious they existed, they weren't hiding much since the day of the comet, but Fire Nation spies didn't last long around their main camp and outside their camp they were ghosts. They weren't sure of the group's exact name yet. They'd only known it existed for two months.
"The White Lotus," Uncle supplied. He touched his beard, stroked it like he was thinking, like it was a regular day on Zuko's ship and none of this had ever happened. "I joined after Lu Ten's death. When I realized how deeply this war was hurting us all, even the Fire Nation."
When his own son had died. Which was so much different than all those other peoples' sons and daughters who'd been dying under his command for years. Speared or crushed or buried under earth, still hearing the footsteps of battle above them while they suffocated.
Zuko focused on the wall behind his Uncle, fine gold-toned wood with carvings subtly burned onto select but seemingly random knots in the grain, the beauty-in-disharmony style that Grandmother Ilah had made popular in the capital when she set her artisans lose on the palace. That wall was as far from stone as it could possibly be. He was in the palace, it was just after noon, it would keep being just after noon if he could focus on his breathing.
"You were with them when you were on my ship?" he asked. "You… did things for them?"
"Correspondence only," Uncle said, like there were degrees to this kind of treachery. "The Wani was unusually mobile; I was asked to transport messages that might otherwise have difficulty reaching their targets. Packages, occasionally."
So Zuko's ship had been some kind of communications center for a network of spies and backroom revolutionaries. Zuko focused on his breathing, even as a million little memories slid sideways in his head, fitting into a different picture than the one he thought he'd seen.
Had Uncle actually lost that damn white lotus tile, or had he been rubbing the joke in Zuko's face before Zuko even knew there was a joke? And all those shopping trips, and the boxes Uncle made the crew truddle on board, bought with money from Uncle's estates because he wasn't banished, he still had titles and land and somewhere to go home to, had he really bought them or were they packages? Zuko had never looked past the first stupid hay-cushioned layer of tsungi horns and monkey statues, never wanted to. Had Uncle made him transport weapons? People? There had been that stowaway the bounty hunter found, and no one had ever known how he got on board, Lt Jee had hated having a sixteen-year-old commander but he'd run a tight ship, except when Uncle was distracting everyone with tea and pai sho and music night—
Zuko breathed, and felt the sparks in him breathing with him, coals turning red and black with each inhale and exhale but too used up to catch flame. He was so cold.
"Would Ozai have executed the crew if he learned what you were doing? Or just us?" Father wouldn't have believed Zuko didn't know what was happening aboard his own ship. Even if he had, he might have executed Zuko for being too naive to live.
He felt dirty. He felt used. He felt like the Agni Kai had started three years ago but it was only yesterday he'd turned around to see who was behind him.
(Azula said Uncle had used him to get to father, but Azula always lied.)
(Unless the truth hurt worse.)
Uncle had been a traitor this entire time. He'd never wanted Zuko to go back, never thought he would or could or should even try, but—
But never told him there was another option, either. That they could do something different, something that would help.
"Why didn't you tell me? Didn't you trust me? Or… was I not good enough?" He'd spent three years on father's backhand insult of a quest. He wasn't stupid, he knew finding the Avatar was supposed to be impossible. He'd been going insane trying to do it anyway because it was the only thing he had and the ship was too small and no one talked to him except Uncle and half of what Uncle said were proverbs, and there was nothing to do but read the same scrolls over again and try to avoid making port try to avoid the laughter as much as he could and practice bending but Zuko was never good enough for Uncle, he'd been stuck on the basics for three years like maybe this time the frustration of doing the same set of moves would make his breath control better.
(He'd had to lock himself in his room and practice with his dao just to stay sane, to have one thing the entire world didn't know about him, and he got better and better until the thrill of being good at something almost let him forget the shame of being a better swordsman than a firebender.)
"You were not ready, Zuko. You were too angry, too set on pleasing your father—"
"Because I had nothing else! It was either chase the Avatar or grab a rock and jump in the ocean. Tea and pai sho weren't going to get me home, Uncle, not without knowing that they were secret fucking codes! When were you planning on mentioning that, when I'd been on the ship five years? Ten? When the Wani broke down and Ozai wouldn't let me have a new ship, and I… I had to follow you into the Earth Kingdom and set up a tea shop because I wasn't legally allowed to settle in our territories? I had to lie to everyone we met in that Agni-scorched country, Uncle. Even just standing there and letting them look at me was a lie, they saw the scar and the eyes and they thought they knew me. Thought I was burned by a soldier, thought I was a war child. I had to… to stand there and let them insult our troops, use someone else's pain to hide, had to—" Had to act like mother loved him and kept him in spite of his father, which was the grain of truth that sold the act and the part he hated hated hated, because even that wasn't fully true, because mother hadn't loved him enough to take him with her. "How did you expect me to live like that, Uncle? Hiding my name, my bending, lying about every-fucking-thing from behind the world's most recognizable face and—and I'm shit at lying, you know that, everyone always lies to me and I just— Do you know how scared I was, every time someone stared at me too long? Every time a guard came in? And you were… what, using the tea shop as a fucking spy headquarters while I was out front serving tea and suffocating? You could have told me you were doing something that had meaning, I could have… I could have helped, I could have..."
There was a knock on the sliding door. Uncle didn't grant permission, but a guard stuck his head in anyway. "Is everything okay, sirs?" his eyes flicked to Zuko. Again. Zuko stopped shouting at the Agni-appointed leader of their nation. He clenched his hands on his knees and stared at the etchings on the wall and breathed.
"I ordered you to remain outside, Lieutenant."
"My apologies, Your Majesty," the guard bowed, and closed the door again.
Zuko bowed, too. "Please forgive me, Fire Lord Iroh. I intended no disrespect. I did not mean to raise my voice to your person." He never did, but he always ended up like this. Maybe that was why Uncle couldn't trust him.
"Sit up, Zuko. There is nothing to forgive. I know who you are." He was smiling gently, just at the corners of his mouth, like that was a compliment.
"Yes, sir," Zuko said, because it was his place to accept whatever offhanded insults the Fire Lord offered him. He straightened out of his bow, and kept staring at the wall. The etching was some kind of animal; a lion-ferret. It was half-curled around a knot in the wood, gold faintly inlaid on its mane. Maybe Azula had a carving like that in the room with her yesterday. It would explain some of the places her mind had wandered.
Iroh waited again. But questions weren't safe, and Zuko didn't like the answers anyway. After a quiet interval that probably seemed long to someone who still had a relationship with time, Uncle nodded, and brought their conversation back to where he wanted it to go.
"I am naming you my heir, Zuko. You will be crown prince again. When you turn eighteen, if you feel ready, I will abdicate the throne." (If he met Iroh's standards, he didn't say.) "I would like you to spend this next year taking on whatever responsibilities you are comfortable with, within reason." (The Fire Lord would decide what was within reason, he didn't say.) "You are welcome at every meeting—" (meetings the Fire Lord would lead) "—your voice and opinions are welcome—" (unless they didn't match Iroh's, and then would he ever see his throne?) "I only want what is best for you." (Did Zuko even want the throne?) "And I… will try to be better at communicating. At explaining what I am doing, and why, and asking what you want."
(It wasn't about wanting, it was about what his country needed.)
Zuko bowed, forehead not quite on the floor but humbly close. A respect equal to the respect being done him. "Thank you, Fire Lord Iroh. When… when will the coronation be?"
Uncle looked disquieted, somehow, as he watched Zuko straighten again. "When you are ready. We do not need to rush things, Zuko. You should rest." His lips quirked. "A man needs his—"
Zuko wanted to scream, but instead he just blotted out the rest of the old man's words and stared at the lion-ferret.
He had to do this. He had to be prince again, so that he could temper whatever damage the other countries were about to do to his, the Avatar and the White Lotus acting through Iroh like they always had even if Zuko hadn't known.
He needed to get out of this room. He was a terrible liar, he needed to not be here, not right in front of Iroh where the man could see just how deep his new heir's loyalty ran.
"I'm… I'm tired, Uncle. May I be excused?"
"Of course. Would you consider having dinner with me tonight, Zuko? If you are feeling better?"
"I would like that," Zuko said, and somehow Iroh didn't catch the lie. He stood, and bowed, and almost made it to the door before he blurted his last question out. "Why was Lu Ten on the front lines?"
Uncle stilled, and let out a slow breath. "He wanted to prove himself. It was not worth his life, Zuko. He had nothing to prove. Neither do you."
Zuko wondered if Lu Ten would agree.
Another modest bow, and he opened the door for himself. The guards were way too close to the door, and looking less guilty than… anxious, maybe? Iroh wouldn't be able to see them from where he was sitting, and Zuko wasn't about to weasel-rat them out. Even if he was (almost) their crown prince again, and they had to have heard him coming, but they didn't even try to hide their eavesdropping.
The servant was gone. One of the guards accompanied him instead, because of course.
"Could I… may I go to the turtleduck pond, please? It's quiet. And there's turtleducks." He wanted to slap a hand to his face, but he was tired and the staff was already well acquainted with his eloquence.
The garden also had walls high enough to feel safe, and enough trees for the guard to at least be discrete. Zuko wasn't sure if the man had been taking him back to his own room or to the infirmary. He'd like to put off clarifying that for just awhile longer, even if both were better than prison. He was… pretty sure he wasn't going there, unless Uncle saw through his act. So. He wasn't going there yet.
"Yes, sir," the guard said. "Uh. Would you like to stop by the kitchens, first? We could pick up bread."
"I would like that," Zuko said, and meant it.
The sous-chef took one look at him and made him sit down at a table, one of the ones staff used during their breaks. Apparently the kitchen had not been pleased to find their breakfast for him delivered to an empty room. He ate what they put in front of him, more or less, and didn't really remember afterwards what it was. At least they'd been happy to bring him water instead of tea.
"Where's the chef?" Zuko asked.
"Sick relatives," the sous-chef replied. "Finish that, or no bread for your ducks."
Zuko pushed a pile of something-or-another around on his plate, making it look more eaten. This did nothing to fool the sous-chef, who was watching him do it. But it did distract him while the guard surreptitiously stole a loaf. The cooking staff did not care for the palace turtleducks much, ever since Zuko asked the chef to take their wild cousins off the menu.
"One of the servants had sick relatives, too," Zuko said. "Are they from the same town? If there's an illness going around, I could… talk to the Fire Lord. See if he'll send the Avatar's waterbender to help."
"It's not particularly contagious, Your Highness, and rarely lethal when addressed promptly," the sous-chef said, after a moment's hesitation. "Perhaps you should ask the Fire Lord about it. Now eat."
Zuko did, but only because it gave the guard time to poach another loaf straight from an oven-fresh tray.
Outside, the pond was… nice? Okay, at least. It was weird, having nothing to do and nowhere to be and noone in particular who wanted him anywhere. Even the turtleducks didn't need him; there was plenty to eat in the pond. They just liked bread, and they would have taken it from anyone else with just as much enthusiasm. He broke off crumbs and dropped them in front of his crossed legs, and had the whole flock on him in moments.
He should… probably feel something. He'd been hoping he would, here. There was sun, so he should feel warm; a nice breeze, cute animals half-way climbing onto his lap, memories of his mother somewhere over his shoulder if he could just turn around to see them. But he felt exactly the same here as he had leaving Iroh. He was back to being nothing and noone except what the Fire Lord allowed him to be. It should at least feel familiar, but it didn't. Feel like anything.
Iroh hadn't even asked if he wanted to be the crown prince again. He'd just… said Zuko would be.
A duck squawked in alarm. The entire flock waddle-threw themselves back into the pond as a shadow bloated out the sun. The guard shouted from somewhere close. Zuko turned around, and came face to nose with the towering form of the Avatar's bison.
Well. At least he could still feel looming dread. That was… nice? Zuko made a token effort to stand, to move, because there was a difference between dying and being trampled to death by a giant six-legged animal, or letting it eat him its mouth was bigger than his room last night—
It licked him.
He could not, apparently, still feel disgust. He just looked down at his newly dampened clothes, and listened to the guard's shout sputter out into confusion, and… wondered what the appropriate reaction to a bison lick was, because the animal seemed to be waiting for something.
Zuko held out the good bread roll. The bison's tongue curled around it, dragging it back into its cavernous mouth. It chewed, and swallowed, and stared down at him again.
It was really, really big.
The bison bundled him up between its front legs, and tipped over on its side with a whumph.
Zuko blinked over at his guard. His guard blinked back.
"I… think it's okay?" Zuko said. "He, umm. He knows me."
"Yes, sir." The guard did not look particularly soothed, but he did retreat back a discrete distance.
The bison was licking his topknot loose. Zuko patted one of the legs holding him to its chest. "I guess you do remember me, huh? Good thing you have better memories of Ba Sing Se than the rest of us."
His hands moved through its fur. He didn't even know what he was looking for until he didn't find it: the furball's legs had healed cleanly, its shackle scars as invisible as Zuko's. But there were other breaks in the fur, the texture familiar under his fingertips—burns. Large ones. Bad enough that the waterbender couldn't heal them away. At least she'd spared the bison the worst of it; it wasn't the initial injury that was bad, but the weeks and months of recovery, the infections and the debridements and the way a wrong touch could make it feel like it was on fire all over again. The bison's scars felt almost as old as his, even though they looked pink and fresh.
"So you were fighting, too."
He'd known that. Could have figured that out, at least. The Avatar had been fighting Ozai when the rest of the fleet was taken down, and it wasn't like the Earth Kingdom had its own airships. The bison must have been the one ferrying their fighters into the sky. It would have made him the prime target for every firebender, the thing they had to take down to save themselves. They hadn't, and they'd died, but… he wouldn't blame the bison for that. Or even the Avatar's group; so many more people would have died if the fleet kept going. He blamed Ozai, and everyone who'd heard the plan but hadn't stopped him. Had anyone else even tried?
"I would have. Fought, I mean. I wanted to."
The bison had finished destroying the servants' hard work on his hair. It rested its gargantuan chin on the top of Zuko's head, and whuffed out a breath of air that Zuko could feel over his whole body.
"On your side," he clarified. He kept his voice down, so the guard wouldn't hear. The staff would respect him even less if they knew he'd failed at even being a traitor. "Wouldn't that have been weird?"
The bison rumbled somewhere deep in its chest. It felt like a minor earthquake under him.
"...Do you understand anything I'm saying?"
It made no move to reply. After a moment of staring up at the sun with his face half-covered in bison fur, Zuko tried to squirm free. It grumbled, and tucked a third leg over him.
"You have too many legs," Zuko complained. He felt… sort of irritated. And sort of not. Mostly, he felt like he understood why the Avatar's group was always leaning against the bison's side. It was weirdly comfortable, and the warmest he'd been in weeks, and the bison's heartbeat drowned out his thoughts with the same steady cadence as waves.
Zuko missed the ocean. If he'd been banished again, he could have just… not been here. He hadn't had much on the Wani, but he'd at least been able to pick where he was going, what he was doing. Even if none of his decisions mattered.
Not even the bison was letting him decide things, now. Zuko pushed against its leg again and it didn't budge again and he went from comfortable to trapped in the space of a heartbeat. He could call out for the guard to help but it was a fucking bison, how could he get beaten by an animal. He shoved again, and tried to kick but that stupid third leg was over his knees and everything was too tight too close—
The bison let him go, and rolled back to its feet. Zuko tumbled free and crouched, glaring up at it.
"Let me have a choice, okay?"
The bison whuffed and settled back down, staring at him with a black eye bigger than his head. Zuko glared at it, and glared at it. It yawned, and lay its head down.
He inched back to its side. And… sat down. And leaned back. It didn't try to grab him again. For something that didn't understand what he was saying, the bison listened better than most people in his life.
He didn't want to be the crown prince again. To be under a Fire Lord again. To be someone's heir, to have his whole future and everything he was be dependant on pleasing them. It was Uncle, but… but he didn't even know Uncle.
His country needed him. Uncle didn't have any other heirs yet, the Fire Nation had been through too much and was about to go through worse, the people deserved stability and someone who would fight for them until—
(Until the next time he was thrown away.)
"I have to be prince. There's nothing I can do," he said, and the bison took in a deep breath that pushed at Zuko's back, like a whole-body nudge.
Maybe nothing was exactly what he should do.
Fuck, he could.
"...He'd kill me," Zuko said. And he felt something bubbling up inside him, giddy-strange and certain, the same as when he'd seen a column of light shoot up from a southern ice pack. Like hope.
Doing nothing meant a lot of work between now and the coronation, if he wanted to do this right. This was the most important fuckup of his life, and he need to plan but he was so tired but he had to get started—
The bison turned its head and whuffed at him again, a little curtly. It was a convincing argument. Zuko leaned back against Appa's side, tilted his head towards the sun, and caught up on all the sleep he didn't get last night.
In our next chapter: Zuko fucks up royally. Stay tuned!
"A boiling rock," Toph said, "Yeah. That sounds great for my feet."
She was sprawled on her back in the courtyard, her toes dug under the tiles so she could get that sweet sweet grit all up between them. Also, dust up the back of the formal robes the servants had rustled up in her size. The others told her they were suitably green, so she was color-coded for the convenience of all the sighted people. Just once, she wanted to go in a clothing shop, mix everything up, and come out in colors so uncoordinated that people would have to pay attention to the person under the clothes. Maybe she could take Sparky with her.
"Not a boiling rock," Sokka corrected, " The Boiling Rock. Apparently it's this big bad prison where they stick all the leaders, so dad and Suki (sigh) are there!"
Toph wasn't sure if he knew he kept doing those little sighs after her name, but it was starting to get on her nerves. She didn't know why it bugged her, and she didn't want to know, she just wanted to chuck a pebble at his head. So she did.
"Oww!" he said. Then: "I will choose to interpret that as an expression of your happiness for me."
"You do that," Toph agreed. "I'm still staying here. And so are you."
Sokka grumbled something surly, and then his whole stance flinched. She was pretty sure he just instinctively covered his head, so the next pebble was aimed for his ribs.
"It's Sparky's coronation. You are not skipping out. Uncle already sent a be-nice-to-these-prisoners hawk, right? So you're going to be a good Ambassador Snoozles and represent your nation. It's not like everything's going to go wrong just because you wait a day."
"That's exactly what people say before everything goes wrong," his grumbling continued, and his weight shifted a little, all light on his feet and balanced, the way he did before he dodged. But he was expecting her to throw things, so she tucked her hands back behind her head and just terrorized him with the anticipation of the throw.
Also, kind of ignored him for awhile. Because she needed to concentrate on her feet.
The palace was a spiderwasp hive of activity. The wood floors and tatami mats made it hard to get fine details from any distance, but right underneath was a nice layer of stone tile, just like in the courtyard. Apparently firebenders knew how to make a place not-immediately-combustible. She liked it here. Might even take Sparky up on his offer to freeload, if Uncle didn't make her go back to her parents when all this was done.
Katara and Aang were easy to find: they were just back in the room. Aang had played the I really need help getting these robes on card and Katara was pretending to fall for it, and Aang's heart was all we're alone nervous and so was Katara's, but Toph wasn't so sure they were nervous for the same reasons, and wasn't sure they weren't sure, and if they could both just stop being all fluttery-hearted and gross that would be great.
She looked further, past the nobles being snooty to each other in corners as they waited for the show to start, past the servants rushing around in last minute panic, past the clerk who'd brought that prisoner list to Sokka on orders from his new Fire Lord and then promptly holed back up in the room all the clerk-types liked to hide in.
Past all that mess, she found Sparky. He was by that muddy sludge pit of fuzzy-vision that everyone else called the turtleduck pond, leaning back against Appa.
Oh man, when the others had first caught those two together? Priceless. Twinkletoes had been freaking out because Appa had been gone from their courtyard for so long, and completely ignoring her reassurances that the big floofball was fine. He'd disappeared the same way yesterday, hadn't he? And the day before? For some crazy-strange reason, her smiles made Aang even more alarmed. So he took off on that glider of his to get the aerial view… and Toph had ssshed the others, and hustled them through the palace to catch the show.
"Huh," Katara said.
"What am I seeing," Sokka said.
"Couldn't tell you," Toph said, "but if you wake him up early, it's the last thing you'll see."
"That is a sufficiently terrifying threat, yes," he whispered. "So. You brought us here to see Zuko… taking the world's most comfortable looking Appa-nap?"
"Nope," Toph said. "I brought you here to watch Aang see it."
Right on time, she felt the world's lightest twelve-year-old return to sweet sweet earth. His heart was still edge-of-fear fast, but his breathing was already smoothing out with relief.
"Appa!" Aang shouted.
Give it a beat, wait for it (and oh, she knew that Katara and Sokka would never admit it, but she could feel them waiting for it right with her).
Aang still had kind of a complex about Sparky. Didn't like getting too close to him. Toph gave the ground under him a helpful nudge, and felt him stumble a step closer.
"Why don't you poke him with your staff," she grinned.
"Uh… I don't think that's a good idea?"
Pfft. Even his voice lacked rock-like confidence. If he'd stood up for himself and given her a 'no' smackdown, she might have let him off the hook. But Twinkletoes needed confidence, and Sparky needed friends.
And Sparky hadn't tried to find her once since the fight with Uncle—even though she'd been very clearly available for finding—like he didn't even think she was his friend. And when she'd devoted her precious time to tracking him down, he'd brushed her off with stupid I'm fine lies that were oddly not-lying but they had to be, no one could be fine again that quick. Even worse were his I'm busy claims when he didn't have any responsibilities right now (still not a lie) and his stupid You'd know if I was lying so I can't tell you excuses when she called him on it. It's a surprise, he'd said, and it felt like a mix between when he'd let Sokka walk off with a plate full of fire-salmon and when he'd been laughing on the courtyard ground.
Please don't tell Uncle, he'd said, while his heart was saying I want to trust you but I've already got plans for when you betray me.
I'm not going to rat you out, she'd said.
If I tell you, he said, you will. And there'd been such certainty in voice and breath and heart and his guttering almost non-bender chi that Toph had, for just a second, wondered if he was right. By the time she'd realized how stupid that was, that of course she knew herself better than he did, he was already hiding back in his room and the gaurds wouldn't let her smash her way inside.
If he didn't want her around because he was afraid of her sheer powers of awesomeness figuring out whatever he was up to, then fine. But he was getting another friend, to the face. She slid a foot back, then shot both hands forward, and sent Aang stumble-falling straight on top of the jerk who didn't realize how lonely he'd felt when he'd walked away from her.
"Sorry sorry sorry!" Aang tried to scramble back, but mostly just fell over in new and exciting ways. Appa yawned.
"Go away, Avatar," the Fire Prince said, giving him a groggy shove. "Don't need to capture you." He rolled over, and fell back asleep. Which was another thing: he'd been doing all his sleeping during the day, mostly on top of a bison. Whatever he was up to, the prep work happened at night. Sometimes he just paced around his room, and sometimes he went out the window. No one had told Toph he was an untrackable ninja, he hadn't even known she was there and he'd lost her. Stupid wooden center beams in stupid roofs.
A smallish turtleduck popped into existence at the water's edge. It gave itself a shake, then waddled over, and climbed up Appa's leg to reach a comfortable sunny perch. It was too light to track in all that fluff, but then Zuko got a little heavier. And a little grumblier. She was pretty sure that was a turtleduck nestled up next to his back.
"What," Sokka said. More ducks waddled out and over and up, which was about the time Sokka had to have a sit-down. "...This is not allowed to be so cute. It's Zuko. Zuko and Appa. Zuko and fluffy little half-grown turtleducks. Perching. Perching everywhere."
"...Huh," Katara repeated, in complete agreement.
Aang just kind of stood there. Much closer to Zuko than he normally did, so that was a win. "Uh. Have they been doing this every day?"
"Naw," Toph said, and felt three heartbeats rise with hope (and one stay sleep-slow). "The turtleducks are new."
One of these days she was going to figure out the heartbeat-reaction equivalent of painting a picture so it'll last longer.
That had been a week ago. Zuko had been pretty insistent that they get the coronation thing over with fast, even though Uncle didn't want to rush his recovery. Uncle had even come to her for a heart-health consultation, but all she would give him was that Sparky always felt worse when Uncle talked about putting it off. And her personal guess that, hey, maybe Zuko would like some stability back in his life, instead of being in this weird between-official-roles limbo.
She didn't tell Uncle how nervous Sparky got during their dinners together, or how his heart rate didn't smooth out until he was face-first back in the bed in his own room. Uncle needed to talk to him. Not give him space and time to recover; just bundle him up in a hug and hold on until he stopped squirming and talked. As awesome as Uncle was, he sucked at this family thing as much as… well, the rest of his family. The Bei Fongs looked high-functioning by comparison.
Right now, Zuko was in his happy place with Appa, but there were no naps occuring. His heart rate was above baseline and staying that way with a weird steadiness that said preparation. Which, duh. Coronation in an hour. But… she'd been expecting more fidgeting. Sparky wasn't a sit-there-and-be-calm kind of guy, but there he was, sitting there. Making himself be calm. Which seemed like a little too much preparation for a hyped-up ceremony where he just had to kneel and repeat after the Fire Sage, and not have his hair spontaneously combust before they could get the crown pinned in.
"I'm going to check on Sparky," Toph announced. "Want to come?"
"You mean, stare at the Zuko-and-Fluffy-Animals Cuteness Overload Happy Funtime Hour?" Sokka asked. "...Yeah, I'm in. Aang! Katara! We're going to go poke at Zuko!"
"Not literally, Sokka," Katara shouted back.
Toph couldn't tell if Sparky looked up or not when they entered the garden. Too much fur at his back, dampening his weight shifts. But his breathing lost its rhythm, just for a moment, and his heart rate ticked up a notch. A he still didn't trust her notch.
"Relax," Toph said, diving into the floof next to him. "I'm not going to ask you anything."
"...Thanks." He meant it. And he believed her. Breath steady and heart rate back down again. "Toph. Ambassador. Um. Good morning?"
"Yeah, it's okay, I know it's weird. I'm just here for the cute under-cooked animals," Sokka said, and tried to pet a turtleduck that was perched on one of Appa's many knees. "Oww!"
"Watch out for Sugar Snap. She's wild."
"Why do you have a wild flightless bird in the middle of your walled garden," Sokka demanded, "and who named her Sugar Snap."
"The cook was—so I—and she bites really hard so we can't get her out again but she's actually really sweet to her babies so… so Sugar Snap. It's, umm. It's a type of nut-pea?" Zuko sputtered.
"I am aware of sugar snaps, yes. I am confused by the rest of this."
Frowns were a tone of voice. So were glares and glowers. Sparky had a neat trick to combine all three. "Was there something you wanted?"
"We're just proving a point," Toph said.
She poked his arm. Yeah, he was just as tense as she'd figured. "That friends don't need to hang out with friends just because they want something, Sparky. You doing okay? Nervous?"
"No," his voice said. Terrified, his heart put in. Man, he couldn't lie to save his life.
"You want to talk about it?"
"You want to tell Ambassador Snoozles which ducks won't sprain his fingers?"
"...No." He said that. But he still did, by body language alone—Sokka kept reaching slowly towards different ducks, and Sparky got tenser and tenser until yep, that duck made him relax.
Quack, the duck said, and tolerated head pats.
"Did you name all of them?" Sokka asked. "Did you name all of them after food?"
"No. Shut up."
"Hey, I'm not judging. Naming food after food is kind of genius. Like suggesting a sidedish."
Sokka, Toph admitted, was a master of distraction. By the time the servant came to collect Sparky, he was as close to relaxed as she'd ever felt him. Shouting at people over stupid things calmed him right down. From the laughter just on the edge of Sokka's breaths, she suspected he'd noted that effect, too.
"Hey," Sokka said, as the servant dragged Zuko away. "Why weren't you getting ready with your Uncle? I know he wanted you to."
"I just… had to go over some things. In my head."
"Arms out, Your Highness," the servant said, already attacking the back of his robes with… was that a brush? Ooooh, bison fur. "There's a reason we asked that you wait inside, Your Highness."
"Sorry," Sparky mumbled, and fidgeted, somehow still managed to convey an absolute lack of regret. The servant sighed.
"Just stand there and look pretty," Toph called after him. "Those sage guys will do the hard work."
"Sure," said his voice. His heart was saying something else, but even if it was three times faster than a scripted ceremony deserved, the beat was strong and healthy, and it was going to make it through this just fine no matter what he feared. "...Toph? Thank you."
"Friends," Toph said. "No thanks required."
"Bye, Plum Tart," Sokka said, patting his duck one last time. "You would be delicious stuffed with your namesake."
The coronation took place out in the main courtyard in front of the palace. Lots of room for witnesses; official court people got to kneel on the pillows in the roped off area up front, plebeians from the city were granted the right to stand in back. It was a pretty decent crowd. There was all kinds of empty small talk about how the cloudless sky was a good omen, and the scorching sun a clear sign that Agni blessed the new Fire Lord's not-so-new heir. They didn't say that last part, but everyone was so carefully not saying it that it was getting on Toph's nerves. Everything out of their mouths was careful flattery, pitched to be heard by the other courtiers around them, repeats of the same safe phrases everyone else was saying.
"This place is messed up," Sokka whispered. "Is no one going to mention that the Fire Lord is making the former Fire Lord his heir? Are they having coordinated amnesia?"
"It's just a different culture," Aang said. "Kuzon always used to say that in the Fire Nation, everyone has two faces: your true one, and the one you wear in public. They probably talk about it a lot, just… not here."
"Huh," Sokka said. "Maybe that's why Zuko sucks so bad at life. He's only got the one face."
"Public face on, Ambassador Snoozles," Toph said. "You keep talking, someone's going to hear you."
Katara didn't say much at all, just sat next to Aang and stared up at the stone stage. But she'd made the very deliberate decision to leave her waterskin back in the room for the first time since they'd set foot in the Fire Nation. Toph was going to take that truce for what it was, and hope that Sparky noticed, too.
The ceremony started.
It probably looked really pretty. Wait, not pretty—what was the one that wasn't lame? Impressive. It probably looked impressive. She could feel a lot of metal with the almost-liquidy-ness she associated with sustained high heat; lamps and torches and big ol' bowls of fire. And everybody was taking really careful steps and swooshing when they moved and weighing about ten pounds more than usual, so she was guessing fancy robes all around. Uncle and Sparky's had actual gold and a few gemstones worked into the designs, which had to make them super fancy. She spent most of the blah-blah trying to figure out what they depicted. Dragons, probably, but what did dragons look like? Also, she wondered if she could convince people to do more art with metal and stone. Or writing, how cool would that be? Ground rock mixed with ink, maybe (though since she was the only one it would benefit, the merchant daughter in her grumbled about wasted investments; limited customer bases only worked when the product was expensive and the customers filthy rich. Bei Fongs made things into money, they didn't spend money.)
Some guy took three steps forward, put something on something else, then took three steps back. Ugh. Back to zoning out.
How many blind people in the world were there? How many were earthbenders, how many good enough to learn even a fraction of her technique, how many had the money to afford special modestly-overpriced-ink and the clout to make people around them use it? And they'd have to learn to read first, which she'd inferred was a pretty hefty time investment. Naw, there was no way this would turn a profit.
More micro movements up on the stage, and somebody reciting some blessing in Ye Olde Firespeak, probably praising Agni, and—oh no, seriously? And now they were reading the royal pedigree. Zuko was the son of the daughter of the daughter of the son of…
Nice that they didn't just trace through the male line. Some areas of the Earth Kingdom could still be really stupid about that. If it wasn't for the helpless blind child thing, Toph was pretty sure her dad would let her inherit. Maybe. He really didn't like his brother.
...Okay, how was Sparky managing to stay tense even listening to this? As soon as the ceremony and well-wishings were over, she was dragging him somewhere and making him relax. Somehow. Maybe Sokka could steal a turtleduck, and the two of them could run around for awhile. Sparky wasn't doing so hot with the sparking just now, but maybe breaking things and shouting would get whatever this was out of his system.
Finally someone plucked the little gold hairpiece-crown off its stand and carried it forward. Iroh lifted it to the sky and asked for his ancestor Agni to witness, and handed it to the super old sage guy who felt as crumbly-dry as sandstone but had chi lines sharp as flint. Zuko stepped forward, facing his Uncle, and sage guy invited him to kneel and Toph promised herself not to tune this part out, this was what she was supposed to pay attention to and compliment everyone on later.
But, um. Was Sparky freaking out? 'Cause his heart rate had just spiked, and he was making the sage guy repeat himself, and…
"Shit," Sokka whispered next to her. Which confirmed that the sighted people were seeing this, too. There wasn't some explanation that just hadn't touched the ground yet.
"Kneel to receive your crown, Prince Zuko," the sage tried, one more time. And now sage guy's heart and Uncle's heart and everyone in the crowd's hearts were picking up speed, just as Zuko's was calming down.
"No," Sparky said.
"Shit shit shit," Sokka said.
"I've already been Fire Lord. I won't be a prince again."
He kept talking. He kept talking, fast like he expected to get interrupted and wanted to get out as much as he could before then. Fast, but loud and clear, and she realized she knew these breaths and these weight shifts as he gestured, recognized them from those nights he'd holed himself up in his room. He'd practiced this.
"I tried for so long to please my father instead of doing what's right. This… this isn't right. And you're not my father, but if you keep working with the Avatar and the White Lotus you're going to destroy our nation as surely as he did. We can't... We can't just kneel in front of the other countries and beg for mercy. He—they won't—it's not going to work. They've hated us so long, they'll ruin us now if we let them. What we've done for the last hundred years—it hasn't been right, either. But the individual people of the Fire Nation... They didn't do this. They just didn't stop it. Our people need to—to do what's right instead of just listening to whoever's strongest. You defeated me, but that wasn't right either, that was—I've done my best, I've tried to stop the war and work with the other nations, but I will not bow to them. And I won't bow to you. I'm… I'm done bowing. The Fire Nation needs to find its honor again, but it won't find it on its knees, and it won't find it working with a child that can tear the fire from our souls. I don't know how you're going to fix this, I don't know how I would have fixed this, but I won't sit at your side and pretend to condone what you're doing."
"Zuko, don't do this. You don't need to agree with me, that is not why I want you as heir—"
"The last time I disagreed, you dethroned me." Sparky shrugged one shoulder, feeling lighter than she'd ever sensed him. "Find another heir, Fire Lord Iroh. I have sick relatives to visit."
The court held its breath as the former Fire Lord turned his back on the current, and hopped off the stage. He didn't quite stick the landing, and his legs were going all wobbly under those concealing robes as he strode away. Toph wasn't sure if he'd done it to be dramatic or because he was too deep in I-just-did-that shock to find the stairs.
Iroh made some gesture and the guards followed, but their weight had already been shifting towards Zuko before the order came. She really hoped that was one of those things it was easy for sighted people to miss because—
Because you didn't do that. Didn't disrespect a king or a Fire Lord like that, and just walk away. Not without nobles watching and judging and barely holding in their murmurs for a safer place, not without guards moving to flank and protect their old Fire Lord without the permission of their new one. Not without walking off with part of the current ruler's power. And Uncle, if he wanted to stay on the throne… He'd need to get that power back, wouldn't he?
She'd been right: Sparky could have kept his mouth shut, gotten his crown, and worked to fix things as Uncle's heir. Could have.
But Zuko really couldn't lie to save his life.
"Sir," one of the guards said to him, at the door to Zuko's room. "Your Maj—"
"Don't," he said. "I… appreciate it. But don't. I'll just… be inside, okay? Let me know when the Fire Lord figures out what to do with me."
"Sir," the guard said, and all of the ones who followed him bowed too low for a prince, especially one who'd functionally abdicated his position. Which was… it was stupid, they were going to get themselves killed if anyone loyal to Iroh saw.
But it was their decision to make.
This was his.
Zuko closed the door behind him, and went to his desk. His knife was waiting—he'd left it out, hadn't known how much time he'd have, hadn't even been sure if Iroh would let him make it back here or would just have had him arrested on stage. It was pretty weak, that Uncle hadn't.
(Had he meant it? His apology, the crown, the abdication—)
Not his problem anymore.
Zuko unsheathed the blade, and held it to his topknot. Hesitated. Not because of… not because of his speech (which he'd practiced and practiced but still fumbled his way through), not because maybe Uncle had meant everything he'd said (what would it even change, he always assumed he knew best; even if he still loved Zuko he'd keep doing things like this, over and over, and Zuko just… he wanted to make his own decisions.) Not that stuff. Because (this was stupid) because he'd already cut his hair for a Fire Lord once, already cut it for his father once, and it had taken months to grow back.
So. Fuck it.
Zuko let his hand drop. He retied his hair. Not a topknot or a wolftail or an Earth Kingdom braid, just a loose no-name tail at the base of his neck. Just to keep it out of his face. It wasn't a symbol of his honor; it was only hair. And he liked his hair.
Then he let out a breath, and went out the window. Everything he needed was already outside of the city, all the new supplies stashed away with the war balloon. The one he'd never reached the day he tried to rescue Uncle, tried to join the Avatar, tried to be someone he wasn't. He didn't know who he was anymore, but fuck that too. He was alive; he'd figure it out.
He left the knife behind, centered on his empty desk.
Never give up without a fight.
He wasn't that anymore, either.
"Well he picked the worst time to grow a moral backbone," Sokka said, as they hid back in their room. Just the original Gaang. Iroh… was a little busy, right now. "I didn't think he even knew what the 'sick relatives' thing meant."
"Wait, what does it mean?" Aang asked.
Sokka was willing to let Katara field that one, and didn't even weasel-rat out that she hadn't known what it meant until a few days ago, either. When all those missing staff members had gotten her concerned, and she'd gone to the palace doctor to offer her help, and come back later looking like someone had tipped the world on its side.
Toph was laying outside on the veranda, her feet dangling down to touch stone.
"Any trouble?" he asked her, and she… didn't respond. "Toph?"
"I'll let you know if they come for us with pitchforks, Ambassador Snoozles. Otherwise, I'm staying out of this one."
Katara was still explaining to Aang and Sokka was half-listening to that, which was why it maybe took him too long to put the pieces together.
Toph was staying out of things.
Which implied something to stay out of.
And Zuko… was the most literal person he'd ever met.
"...He's visiting sick relatives," Sokka said. "He's visiting sick relatives. Toph, where's Iroh?"
"This is me, staying out of it," the earthbender said, which did nothing to help his sudden desire to hyperventilate.
"Toph," he tried again, because apparently Katara's constant hope for the world was a family trait. "Where's Zuko?"
Sokka ran. The servants, it should be noted, were politely useless in helping him find their Fire Lord.
The birds were jealous and the rabbits didn't care and all the dragons were dead or caged except the last two, one curled fat and happy around his throne while the other circled his feet, content to betray her for scraps. Really, it was too much to ask for Azula to remain sane. What was her motivation?
Someone knocked on her wall. Twice. The wall next to her window, her window next to a seventeen-story drop to a rather sharp pointy rock-strewn ocean. Her window was cliff-adjacent, as if someone was trying to gently dissuade her from going outside. Unless, of course, it was a final sort of trip. Such a subtly charming view.
"Zuzu," she addressed the knocking, "I am getting sick of hallucinating you. If you're real, come inside. If not, kindly fuck off."
"Umm, it's going to take a second. Can you burn through the bars, or do I need to get the screws out?"
She stalked to the window, and threw back the curtains. Her older brother was hanging onto the window ledge by the tips of his fingers.
Given that this idiocy was beneath her mind, Azula tentatively allowed for the situation to be real.
"If I burn your fingers, you'll fall. One by one, how many will it take?" She leaned her face against the bars, and breathed a tongue of fire into the air above his head. And what was with that tail he'd put his hair into, was he an Earth Kingdom peasant? "Where is your crown, Zuzu? The birds chitter-chattered all about the coronation."
"I told him to fuck off," her brother grinned.
He propped an elbow on the window sill. "I mean, not like that. But… in a speech? It would have been better but I forgot half of it—"
"Zuzu. Focus, please."
"Could we get these bars off, first? Not the best toeholds here, Azula."
Azula rolled her eyes in a suitably dramatic fashion, and blew a few strands out of her face while she was at it. Then she punched the window out of its frame. His flinch was quite lovely as it flew just over his head and down down down, all the way to the ocean below.
You could have hit me, he would say.
I might have fallen, he would say.
"Why does no one need me to escape?" he huffed. "You burned through days ago, didn't you?"
She shrugged, and examined her nails. "I was bored."
"Why didn't you leave?"
I had nowhere to go, she could say.
The cliff was tall-short and the ocean far-close and the walls wouldn't stop moving no matter how much I screamed at them, she could say.
She crossed her arms, and raised an eyebrow. "Zuzu, have you any idea how much property damage I haven't done yet? I'm quite sure the royal treasury is footing the bill. This place would look simply lovely with new renovations, and I'm sure the staff would come to appreciate my efforts."
He hooked a hand on the stub of a remaining bar, and pulled himself up. Didn't come inside. Sat there right on the ledge like he trusted her not to push him. One light shove and down down down just like the bars and maybe then all these chitter-chatterers would leave her alone.
"I'm leaving," he said, with a voice that didn't sound like it came from her head (why would she leave where would she go). "Want to come with?"
"Leaving," she repeated dryly. "Where?"
"No idea." He shrugged, and smiled. "Maybe we could find a nice Earth Kingdom family to adopt us."
"And you graciously decided to invite me along on your," she rolled her wrist, and wiggled her fingers with all due scorn. "Field trip."
This had to be a hallucination, because Zuzu did not smile like that, not like he was a commoner without a care in the world or a thought in his head or the weight of expectations the need to be better best perfect. He had never smiled like that.
She poked him in the chest. One finger, with more and more and more pressure as he sat smiling over that drop. He didn't flinch. Didn't even look at it, maybe she should push him, maybe she would.
Another shrug how dare he keep aiming those at her.
"I decided I'll trust you."
"I don't think that's how trust is supposed to work, Azula."
"You're a fool."
"Am I a fool you can trust?" Stop shrugging, stop smiling, stop it. "Come with me, Lala."
He held out a hand. As if following him out over a literal cliffside was a good idea. As if he was really here and he really cared and he would really give up his crown to come wander the world with a little sister who could only ever look at a person in a window frame and contemplate how hard to push them.
But she hadn't pushed him. And if he wasn't real, then he could be… he could be better than a real person. He would want her, he would never leave her, never betray her, a real person couldn't do that but this smiling hallucination who knocked on walls, who'd stayed up all night and talked her through the chattering birds, he could.
She took his hand, and pulled him inside.
"Very well. But we're using the door, Zuzu. Former royalty is still royalty."
"All right. But we're not killing anyone on the way out. Or maiming them."
"Oh? And you'll stop me?"
"Yeah. You can choose to hurt people if you want, Azula, but I'll stand between you and them. That's my choice."
"I will hurt you, brother."
"Yeah. Um. My fire's gone. So the next time you do the lightning thing, it's going to kill me. Just… so you know." He scratched at the back of his head, then paused, looking briefly surprised to remember his own terrible choice in hair styling. Then he dropped his hand, and shrugged again. "Come on, we'd better go before Uncle figures out where I went. I… um, I kind of told him—"
"—It slipped out, okay! But I don't think he understood? It looked like he thought I meant something else."
"What did you say?"
"That I was visiting sick relatives."
"You said that. In front of the whole court and all the rabbit-mice who'd come to watch. You said that?"
Azula laughed. She continued laughing, all the way out. This had the benefit of sending the doctors and nurses skitter-skattering out of her way like the head-sucking leech-ticks they were, and the guards Uncle had left looked at Zuko, and bowed, and stood aside.
She could almost pretend the bows were for her, too.
"Azula has escaped," Iroh said.
Sokka wondered whether Zuko knew he'd just started a civil war. Because everyone else in the capital sure did, even if it was only whispers and side-glances hidden behind all those public faces of theirs. And Sokka was starting to be a little afraid that not only was he right about Zuko's evil mastermind abilities, but that they were completely unintentional. Which made him a whole lot more dangerous, really.
They had to capture the Fire Prince. Fast. Before the whispers spread too far, or got too loud, or gave the wrong people the hope to fight back.
The irony did not escape him.
End Book 0: Prologue (By Summer's End) (Zuko's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day)
Prologue complete. Let's get this story started, yo. <3
Regarding the Book 0 title: remember the date Roku said they had to defeat the Fire Lord by? Good job, Gaang, you did it!
Book 1: Autumn (Unbowed) (These Aren't The Field Trips You're Looking For) is up next, after a brief message from our sponsor, John Denver.
Chapter 19: Book 0 Interlude: Leavin' on a War Balloon
A little something to tide you over. Regular updates to resume after the Season One finale of Little Zuko.
"Less flame, more heat. And just… keep it steady, not so fast—"
"Zuzu. If you figured it out, I'm sure I'll manage."
The ground below them sunk away with alarming rapidity.
"Do you remember that one summer, when Mom and Uncle took us up Mount Taishin?"
"No, Zuko, I was four."
"How do you know you were four if you don't—"
"Is there a point to this happy family recollection?"
"Remember how when we got up really high, it got harder to breathe?"
She eased back on her flames. Slightly. For entirely unrelated reasons.
"Zuzu. I cannot help but notice that this balloon is bending-powered. What was your plan if I hadn't come along?"
"What would have been the point in going without you?"
"Cute. You didn't have one, did you?"
"...Do I ever?"
"I suppose that answers the question 'where are we going.' "
"Actually, there's an island we should stop to rest at before trying to cross. Unc—Iroh used to say the ruins there were interesting. Really overgrown and full of mosquito-ticks, but interesting."
"Zuzu, what part of 'ruins with large bugs' makes this interesting? He couldn't have made the place less appealing if he tried."
"Boring is good, though. No one should look for us there, and it's uninhabited."
"Oh, I'm sure no one will be looking for you at all. You're only visiting sick relatives, after all. You told them so earnestly."
"...I'm going to sleep."
"You do that."
"I can't sleep when you're laughing."
Turbulence. Azula swore exactly like someone trying to be a sailor.
"Did you learn those from me?"
"...Maybe we could look for mother."
"If she was alive, she would have found you when you were banished. She wouldn't just abandon you."
"Maybe she tried, but she couldn't find me."
"That would mean she didn't look, Zuzu."
"You're getting good at this. Just keep us at this altitude, this air current is perfect."
"I hardly need advice on perfection from you. Or the wind. The world at large, really."
"She's dead, you know."
"...What does 'sick relatives' mean? —Stop laughing, oh Agni, Azula we're falling, breath control, breathe—"
"Do you think Ty Lee and Mai would like to come? ...Azula?"
"Her uncle runs the place, Dum-Dum."
"Are you going to sulk the entire balloon ride?"
" Fine, we'll pick up your traitor girlfriend."
"Technically she was just being loyal to her future Fire Lord."
"Technically, she was being disloyal to her future Fire Lord. And her current one."
"Everyone in our family got a turn on the throne. You'd almost think we shared well."
"We really don't."
"...They can still be your friends, too. I think they were just—"
"Zuzu. I believe that we can both agree that I have been courteously lax in testing your convenient inability to redirect my bending."
" Go to sleep, Zuzu. I'll wake you when it's time to break ingrates from our nation's most secure prison."
"Do we have a plan?"
"Has that ever stopped you?"
Book 1: Autumn (Unbowed) (These Aren't The Field Trips You're Looking For)
20. Favorite Prisoner
Getting angry didn't help. Thinking of escape—or worse, rescue— didn't help. Months at the Boiling Rock had taught Suki to take her pleasures from the petty victories in life.
It was too damn hot here, even for the Fire Nation prisoners. She smirked whenever one got hauled to medical with heat stroke, while she was still standing.
There was a rust spot just outside the warden's office. She watered it with her mop, and watched it grow. Maybe one day the man would fall right through the floor. She had time.
Her favorite, of course, the one that gave her bone-deep satisfaction, was that she could measure her time here in Fire Lords. Fire Lord Ozai, smacked down from the sky at the height of his power by her friends (they were still alive, they were still fighting, they were winning). Fire Lord Azula, the one who'd thrown her in here, was only mentioned for a day; then the guards uneasily avoided her name (and gossiped ruthlessly about her downfall, the rumors out of the palace, how she'd lost her mind under the pressure and they didn't mean that figuratively). Fire Lord Zuko, the anger case who'd burned her village down, had been overthrown by his own uncle just last week. Factoring in Uncle Backstabber's political experience… she gave him a year. Then it was goodbye to Sozin's line on the throne, and she'd outlasted them all. Would there be a civil war? Suki hoped there would be a civil war. Let the Fire Nation's military class tear each other apart.
She'd found other things at the Boiling Rock, too. Things that were… unexpectedly good.
She was the youngest prisoner here, and the smallest, and a girl on an isolated island where most people were men and criminals, the guards included. This wasn't a desirable job posting. She'd been ready to fight since the moment she was brought here. Been ready to lose, eventually, because she was alone and the strength of the Kyoshi warriors was in their teamwork. Waiting for someone to try it had kept her awake in the night, kept her bristling during the day. It took her two weeks to realize that the patrols going past her room were always the same handful of guards, and this wasn't their regular route.
"My daughter's a little younger than you," one of the men told her, when he'd caught her wary stare. Which was everything she needed to hear on the subject— more than she needed to hear. She wasn't ready, in that first month, to start thinking of them as people. It was easier to keep them all together as enemies. One ethnicity, one nation, one box, separate from herself.
And then, suddenly, they weren't. There were political dissenters who'd spoken out against the war, deserters who'd had enough, criminals who were just as commonplace-awful as in any nation. There were intense mealtime debates over what each new Fire Lord meant for their country, and learning which guards would let them talk treason about royalty—which would even join in—and which would throw everyone in the cooler for even a disrespectful glance towards the current ruler's portrait.
Then there was Sokka's father. She saw him in the yard the day the new political prisoners arrived and knew he couldn't be anyone else, and it hurt to see what Sokka would grow into (tall and defiant, and the sense of humor did not improve with age) because she was in here, growing in different ways. They'd only kissed twice, but it was war, and she didn't know when she'd kiss a boy again. He'd told his father about her. Hakoda swore he'd have her back in here, and she swore the same. They had to stick together, he'd said, and it took her longer than it should to realize he meant against all the Fire Nation scum around us.
The other prisoners were out of their box, and she couldn't put them back. For his first lunch under the Boiling Rock's hospitality, Suki led Hakoda to sit between a man who'd been imprisoned for subversive poetry pamphlets and a woman who'd crippled her commanding officer when she caught him burning an Earth Kingdom child. Hakoda looked thoroughly uncomfortable. Suki realized she wasn't. Not anymore.
And then the Fire Princess' lackeys showed up, in prison uniforms.
The bouncy one dumped extra bleach into the laundry, and everyone was wearing pink for a month, and there went any hope Suki'd ever had of keeping them in the box.
"So, what are you in for?" Suki asked, sitting next to the one that wouldn't mentally exhaust her in a conversation.
"Poor taste in men," the knife girl droned.
"Same," Suki replied. "Also, I almost kicked your princess' ass."
"Ty Lee! Oh gosh, did I startle you? I'm so sorry—"
Mai didn't get special treatment for being the warden's niece. He made that point very clear, with the feverish military rigidness of a man obeying rules to the letter. Same cells, same food, same work, same clothes. And if he avoided talking to her at all rather than debasing her like the other prisoners, well, there wasn't a law about how often he had to personally make each inmate miserable.
"I'm sure my parents have disowned me by now, too," the girl said. "I'm no longer politically viable."
"Oh, Mai," Ty Lee hugged her friend, who took great pains to not acknowledge said hug. "I'm sure as soon as Azula forgives us, your family will talk to you again!"
"Thanks, Ty Lee," the girl said. Suki was beginning to admire how one-voice-fits-all her monotone was.
Her new allies were cautiously, fearfully optimistic when Azula's portrait took its place on the prison wall.
They were confused but heart-breakingly hopeful when Zuko's replaced it.
They'd already stopped glancing at it when, two months later, he was replaced.
A week into his reign, Fire Lord Iroh sent a hawk, suggesting that the warden take very good care of certain prisoners. Suki and Hakoda found themselves awaiting prisoner transfer. The Dragon of the West had taken a special interest in them, for reasons unknown to either her or her new friends. But when they glanced at the old man's portrait, it was nervously.
"We're going to break you out," Ty Lee whispered through the slit on Suki's cell, because in the day and a half since that hawk had come Suki hadn't been allowed out once. "We could start a riot and take Mai's uncle hostage and ride the gondola to freedom! Mai's already made a ton of shanks, and you and I don't even need weapons! We'll just bam-bam and—"
"How will we get off the island?" Suki asked, her back against the warm steel wall of her cell. She'd learned weeks ago that it was best to humor the girl (whose uniform was still pink, as if the guards had finally admitted defeat so long as she didn't ruin everyone else's clothes.)
"When they come for you they'll bring a balloon! Or a boat! We'll take it and ride to freedom! Mai and I will come with you, and we can bring along that old Chief guy so your boyfriend will be happy, and maybe we can go break out your Kyoshi warriors, and I'd love to see your home and, oh, wear one of those pretty dresses you're always talking about! I'm sure there's a resistance we can join and we'll be best friends even after we're out because all us non-bending girls have to stick together—"
"Sounds great, Ty Lee," Suki said, still humoring. Hoping was too dangerous.
The next morning, a war balloon landed outside the volcano.
Things began to go exactly as planned. This was a problem.
The Boiling Rock episodes had so many little touches I appreciated, but pretty high up that list was the guard who saw Zuko suspiciously standing watch outside of a female prisoner's cell and was immediately like "I need to check in there right now." She was not having any of whatever that was. You are my hero, anonymous guard lady.
PS: Some of us are making a Horrible Animal Friends coloring book. Announcement and more details here. <3
Chapter 21: Pardon Me
I am super pregnant. Please forgive general update slowness in the coming months as I try not to physically or emotionally scar a fragile new lifeform. All of my stories are still active, but I'll be focusing primarily on Towards the Sun, Salvage, Little Zuko, and refilling the deep well of sleep deprivation that I'm warned is coming. <3
"These are my summer clothes, Zuko. You packed my summer clothes."
"It is summer!"
"Barely. Ugh, the pink coat? I thought I burned that. Ty Lee must have hidden it better than I'd thought."
"Can I turn around yet?"
"No. And if I turn around and your hair is still in that abominable state, you might force my hand."
Azula finished dressing in her own good time, in robes that passed as fashionable when worn by her, with the too-light weight of a mere princess' headpiece pinned into her topknot.
Zuko was in clean clothes, at least. A bit too informal, but passably presentable, and with his back still obediently turned. His hair in its atrocious low ponytail continued to defy her.
"I didn't bring a hairpiece. Wouldn't it look even weirder if I wore a topknot with no hairpiece?"
"You remembered to pack my crown, but not yours."
"...Yours was more important?"
She would allow him his ponytail. For now. Besides; they were losing altitude fast, and the landing pad outside the Boiling Rock's caldera was in sight, with guards already waiting for them. There would be plenty of time for lighting her brother's hair on fire at a later date.
"This is a terrible idea." Zuko had the tone of an expert.
"It's been less than a day, Dum-Dum. Do you really think an isolated island prison is at the top of our dear uncle's list to inform of your," she rolled her wrist, "dramatic exit? Trust me, he's in no hurry to spread that news. But I guarantee the entire empire received the uplifting announcement of your impending coronation. We walk in, we walk out, and if anything goes wrong, I'll burn everyone who defies us."
This failed to soothe him. She hadn't intended it to.
The Warden waited at the foot of the gondola station, his armor polished to a regulation gleam, his highest officers arrayed behind him. Refreshments awaited in his office, and the Fire Lord's valued prisoners in their cells. This was not, after all, an unexpected visit.
The gondola came to a halt. Two former Fire Lords stepped off. With… no one else.
"Your Highnesses," he bowed. "I was not expecting the honor of your presence."
"Trust me, Warden," Princess Azula flashed her teeth, "I would be more concerned if you had been. Now. I would like to see my prisoners."
"Of course. Will your escort be joining us?" he asked, as if asking would make the gondolas begin moving again, and an escort appear. The princess had been prone to outpacing her guards, if not outright leaving them behind, in visits past. It did not seem appropriate for a prisoner transfer, however.
"I'm sure they'll catch up. The prisoners?"
"At once, your Highness. We have taken every precaution; as soon as the Fire Lord's message arrived, we separated them from the general population, and..."
The two royals exchanged a look. The Warden did not find it wise to speculate on its meaning. He also didn't find it wise to continue speaking over it.
"Zuzu," the princess asked, tilting her head to the side. "Is he taking us to them yet?"
"No," Prince Zuko said.
"Let me know when he is. And so help me if he offers refreshments first."
"...Right this way, your Highnesses." The Warden bowed again, and turned to lead them into the prison proper.
The prince began to follow. The princess did not. She stood examining her fingernails, a half-smile cut into her face.
"He, ah. He's taking us," Prince Zuko said.
"Thank you, Zuzu."
They began walking again. All of them, this time.
The prince—the crown prince—fell into step at the Warden's side, his sister a step behind. The boy was strangely thin, and strangely ill-dressed, and strangely forgoing his formal crown to wear his hair in some sort of peasant style instead. His thinness was the sort that some of the prisoners on their lowest levels had; a rather distasteful necessity in prison management, that, but when a Fire Lord orders someone locked away and forgotten, the Warden was quite adept at amnesia. As for the rest... perhaps it was a holdover from the boy's time away from court, or some new fashion in the capital. Such trends didn't generally reach them, here at the Boiling Rock. Not that 'emulating a colony refugee' was something the Warden would have encouraged among his staff.
For all that the prince looked like someone had dragged him out of a dark hole, the boy walked with a certain confidence. Casual curiosity, almost. Which was generally not the reaction most had upon viewing the Boiling Rock for the first time.
They passed from an imposing metal corridor into a walkway overlooking the prison yard below. All was sufficiently orderly; the first shift of prisoners was taking their exercise under the watchful eyes of his guards, their conversations—where such existed—hushed to reasonably cowed volumes. Others were about their chores. Those that saw the Warden and his party quickly ducked their heads, tucked their shoulders, and otherwise gave satisfactory impersonations of lizard-dogs at heel.
The prince paused to look down on them, and out at the prison at large.
"This is nice," he said. "Warm. Sunny."
"Lakeview," the princess added, and both royals laughed. One of the Warden's guards shifted uneasily at the sound. The Warden noted this for future reprimand.
The princess herself was looking significantly better than certain rumors to the contrary. She was also staring directly back at him.
"You," she said, "are wondering why I'm here. Did you really think my own uncle would keep me locked away?"
"Of course not, your Highness."
"How is Mai? Comfortable?"
"Azula," the prince warned.
"...This way, your Highnesses."
They followed him, and peered through the slits of the holding cells like they were at the Caldera Zoo. At the first, the princess made a dismissive noise.
"It's the Water Tribe Chief," the prince explained. "...I think."
"Chief Hakoda," the Warden supplied.
Not that the princess was listening; she was already peering into the next cell, her lips curling into a smile.
"Ah, my favorite prisoner. Perfect." She waved a hand over her shoulder. "Do your thing, Zuzu. I'll just be in here."
"Better be quick," she said.
The prince let out a breath. And turned to the Warden. "I, uh. I'd like to see Mai and Ty Lee. They're being pardoned. So... we're going to leave with them."
"Of course, your Highness. Do you have their release papers?"
"I didn't need papers to put them in here," the princess said. "I don't see why we'd need any to take them out. If you're so worried about it, send a hawk to Uncle Fire Lord. We'll wait."
The princess was not one to be kept waiting.
"...I'll send for them, Your Highnesses."
The Warden had not gained his position by questioning royal orders.
Azula was here. Mai hadn't seen her, but half the prison had; strolling over the walkway above, her crown restored.
Zuko was here, too. Maybe. People weren't as sure on that one, because even if he'd fallen from grace under Fire Lord Iroh's reign, no one started looking like a famine victim that fast. His royal portrait had made him look young and strong; not like this. But he had the prince's scar, didn't he?
He hadn't been wearing a crown.
Mai had thought Fire Lord Iroh would still favor him. They'd seemed close. And then Zuko had abandoned the old man in Ba Sing Se, so maybe that had been the end of that. Azula was the objectively better candidate for heir if Iroh was trying to bring Ozai's faction back into the fold. And apparently he'd deposed his nephew, so it really shouldn't be a surprise that those rumors of a coronation ceremony had gotten prince confused with princess.
It certainly wasn't a surprise when the guards came to collect her. Mai fell into step between them; no need to make this a bigger production than it already was.
Ty Lee had her own guards. They met in a hallway on the way to wherever they were both being taken. Ty Lee flashed a bright smile. Mai returned a bored nod.
They were brought to the Warden's office. Inside was Zuko, sitting on the corner of her uncle's desk with his foot propped up on a chair, picking at a tray of refreshments like fruit was a novelty to him.
"You're dismissed," he said.
The guards shifted uncomfortably. "It's policy to keep the prisoners guarded during interrogations—"
"They're being pardoned. Not interrogated. Guard from outside."
"...Yes, your Highness."
They closed the door behind them. Mai and Ty Lee looked at Zuko. He looked back.
"...Kiwi-grape?" he offered, holding out a bowl.
Ty Lee accepted one of the fruits, with a "Thanks!"
"Nice of you to finally visit, Zuko," Mai said.
"I didn't… know you were here?"
"Did you ask?"
Briefly, very briefly, a flash of that familiar glare broke through whatever this weirdly relaxed mask was. "I was—I was trying, okay? There were just too many things, and there were more everyday, and I didn't know you were in prison. I thought she'd just banished you like everyone else."
Mai crossed her arms. "Only banished. That's great."
He closed his eyes. Took in a deep breath, and let it out. Ty Lee took another kiwi-grape.
"So." His eyes flicked to the door, and the shadows of the guard's feet underneath. "You're being pardoned."
"On whose orders?" Mai asked, because Zuko really wasn't wearing his crown, and they were not going back to working for Azula. Not for longer than it took to run away.
"Mine? Iroh named me the crown prince."
Iroh. Not 'Fire Lord Iroh'. Not 'Uncle'. Mai narrowed her eyes.
"Great!" Ty Lee said. "Can you pardon our friend, too?"
"That's, uh. That's not a great idea. Our war balloon isn't very big, and it's a long flight to… Caldera."
"That's too bad." Ty Lee smiled. "We really want her to leave with us."
Once they left the Boiling Rock, once they betrayed Azula again, they weren't getting back in here. Traitors to the crown couldn't just walk in and take people from the Fire Nation's most secure prison. If they were getting Suki out, they were doing it now.
"Where's Azula?" Mai asked.
"With a prisoner."
"Her 'favorite' prisoner?"
"That's really too bad," Ty Lee said. She popped one last kiwi-grape into her mouth, and wiped off her hands on her pink prison pants.
Azula was in the middle of a refreshing bout of minor psychological torture when the cell door opened. It was her two traitors, plus her brother.
"Really?" she sighed. "Without even knocking?"
Mai pressed a sharpened piece of metal to Zuzu's neck. "Step away from her," she said, more to the guards than Azula. An accurate assessment of how much Azula cared about threats to her brother's safety. It was Mai's hand on the knife, but the Dum-Dum had clearly done this to himself.
Meanwhile, Ty Lee was relieving a guard of his keys to the prisoner's shackles.
Mai's gaze stayed on Azula. Azula's stayed on her brother.
"Zuzu. How exactly does one screw up a pardon?"
"They wanted to bring their friend. I said no."
"...Now I'm their hostage," he said. "So they can escape."
She couldn't help the little laugh that cut its way out of her throat, or her glass-edged smile.
"So the traitors betrayed you. What have we learned about trust, Zuko?"
He shrugged, in that maddening way that implied he didn't care. "It's still the right thing to do."
"You're not stopping us," Mai said, like a squawking shrike-viper was any part of this conversation.
"On the bright side," her brother said, "we definitely don't need paperwork now."
Neither traitors nor guards nor the prisoner rubbing her unshackled wrists seemed reassured by the sibling laughter that followed.
"A ship just docked, sir," reported the guard, after a perfectly executed bow. "Royal guard."
It appeared their Highnesses' escort had caught up.
The Warden nodded his dismissal, and spent a few more minutes in the yard, appreciating the tired misery of a well-run prison. It, like all final moments of happiness, went largely unremarked.
This was when the escape alarms went off.
Chapter 22: Everyone Is Escaping
Life updates: Mini-Muffin is one year old and Salvage is complete and I wrote this chapter WHILE THE IN-LAWS WERE VISITING, so you can believe me when I say that we are BACK, baby. Going to focus on this story until at least the end of the Boiling Rock Arc. <3
A conversation between Sokka and Toph, circa that morning:
"I just have this feeling that everything is about to go wrong."
"You had that yesterday, Ambassador Snoozles."
"And everything did. Or were you at a different coronation-turned-civil-war-declaration than I was?"
"Go get your dad, Sokka. And your non-moon girlfriend."
So now here Sokka was, stepping off a royal cruiser into the shadow of the Boiling Rock's caldera.
"This way, Ambassador," Captain Izumi said, as if there were more than one way up from the docks. He wondered if she knew his name, or if in her head she was finishing every Ambassador with Snoozles.
Sokka wanted Katara here at his side, but there'd already been some scuffles in the capital between people who supported Iroh and people who didn't, and she was out helping to heal bruises and tempers. Showing them that Team Avatar was about more than ripping their firebendy-souls out of their still-living bodies and usurping their hereditary monarchs (twice). Katara was pretty good at the whole rallying-people-to-the-side-of-good thing, and Toph was with her in case things rallied the other way, and Iroh was meeting with his nobles and generals in his own rallying way with Aang by his side being twelve and goofy and hopefully less terrifying than rumors alleged.
Damage control, in other words.
So Sokka was here alone. Just a quick in-and-out to pick up his dad and Suki, then back to the palace. He had the current Fire Lord's full support, and a team of royal guards Iroh trusted, and there was no reason to think that anything was about to go terribly horribly wrong.
The bad feeling had not gone away. Scientifically speaking, it was already one for one.
Hakoda's new cell left nothing to the imagination. It was only him, his handcuffs, and a chair bolted to the floor. It wasn't a room you held someone in for long; wasn't a room that cared where its resident was going next, or if they were comfortable on their way.
The light through the keyhole was blotted out; the knob turned; the hinges did not creak. Hakoda knew more about the Warden's obsessive maintenance schedule than he'd ever desired. He stood, tense and readied for whatever came. He didn't have a bad feeling about this. He didn't need to: nothing good would come for him when that door opened.
It opened on Suki, spinning a guard's key ring around her finger.
"Jailbreak," she said, and her smirk told him everything he needed to know about how fast and deep his son would have fallen for this girl.
Outside the cell, he felt old. Four other teenagers waited for him with varying degrees of indifference; five, with Suki. It was entirely clear that getting him out had been her idea, and only her idea.
"Is it really a jailbreak if you're all being pardoned?" a girl he recognized from her royal portraits stated more than asked. Her Former Majesty Azula, short had she reigned, stood slightly apart from the group.
Hakoda swept his eyes over the rest of the children, then raised an eyebrow at her. "Pardoned at knife point?"
The Fire Princess scoffed. The boy at knife point shrugged.
His Former Majesty Zuko was neither as regal nor as well fed as his own portraits had implied. The royal painter had clearly left out a few circumstances. Whatever they were, they'd done nothing to convince the boy that he was a mere mortal like the rest of them; even with Mai's blade to his throat, he seemed blithely unconcerned for his safety. Hakoda was, as always, unimpressed by the Fire Nation royal family.
"Let's get going," Suki said, "before any guards show up."
Which was, of course, when the guards showed up.
There was a war balloon on the upper landing. A little one, looking a lot like the kind Sokka had helped the Mechanist design, but with just enough visible differences to make Sokka veer towards it—
Captain Izumi didn't say anything. She just stopped walking and stood there, like a particularly animate pillar, exhibiting the same scathingly professional air with which she always handled Team Avatar. At least she'd been acting like this since the beginning; it was the people who'd started after the Agni Kai—or worse, after yesterday's little speech —that worried Sokka.
Worried him the most, anyway. Anyone who'd dedicated their lives to serving Ozai worried Sokka rather a lot on principle, and no, Iroh's insistence that the royal guard was sworn to the Fire Lord, not a Fire Lord, didn't help. It sure hadn't helped Zuko.
Captain Izumi kept up her pointedly polite waiting. Sokka un-veered, away from one of the last remaining war balloons, the only one he'd been in range of putting his hands on without being in the middle of a life-and-death battle in a flame-soaked sky.
One of their guards was exchanging pleasantries and paperwork with the guards up here. The prison guard looked things over and then flashed a signal fire over his head, staccato flares of flame from an upraised palm. Someone across the big scary lake signaled back, and the heavy steel cables began to move.
So consolation prize: free gondola ride.
Besides, he could poke at the war balloon on their way out. His dad would like that.
"He owes me—" the voice of one guard said, as they rounded a corner into the dead end corridor in which the holding cells lay.
"You are never getting that money back," the other said. "I don't know why you think you are ever getting that money back."
"But it's payday and he owes me—"
And then they were fully in the corridor, fully in view, and both guardswomen stopped. Mai tightened her grip on the knife.
"Hi," Zuko said, with a little wave. "I'm a hostage."
One of the guards lunged. Not for them, but for the wall; specifically, for the prison-wide alarm on the wall. Those were placed at quite regular intervals. Azula had always been tempted to pull one, but perfect princesses did not give in to such urges.
Suki moved to intercept, and the guard's outstretched arm quickly became the pivot point that sent her arcing into the floor. Ty Lee followed in Suki's shadow, and the second guard's hand went limp before she could more than half-way draw her sword.
The prison alarm blared, loud and insistent and all around them. Guards and escapees alike turned to Azula.
She shrugged, and took her hand off the switch.
That had been exactly as satisfying as she'd always imagined.
"What's that noise?" Sokka asked, squishing his face against the gondola's window, because Captain Izumi had made him close it, because for some reason she'd taken one look at him leaning out to stare at the boiling sulfuric lake of death far below and slid it shut almost on his nose. And latched it. And stood in front of the latch.
"Prison alarm," she said, telling him nothing he couldn't already infer. Because prison. And alarm.
She made some rapid hand signals, and the royal guard fell into a protective circle around him. Sokka was no longer allowed a window view. Or much of a view at all, besides the backs of his overly tall guards. Adults, and their desire to make decisions for him, continued to be awful.
The gondola continued its downward descent, which felt like a metaphor for this situation.
Hakoda took the rear guard as they ran. He would have preferred point, because he was the adult here, but Suki and Ty Lee were already ruthlessly filling the position and hadn't bothered to consult him. It wasn't as if rear guard were less dangerous; he held the sword he'd stolen from those first guards ready as they came across more.
It always took the guards a moment to realize the situation, despite the Fire Prince's… helpful contributions.
"I'm a hostage," the boy waved again. "Would you mind stepping into that cell there, so they don't kill me? Thanks. Uh, have a nice day."
"I'm not related to you," the Fire Princess said, after one such encounter. No one was holding a knife to her throat, but the threat against her brother was apparently enough to keep her in line. Perhaps there was some hope for their family.
"You pulled the big red switch," the boy shot back, seemingly more offended by her words than by being dragged around by his neck.
"Someone was going to," the girl sniffed. "Don't I deserve nice things, Zuzu?"
Hakoda had long wondered if there was insanity in the line of Sozin. This was not how he'd expected to gain confirmation.
They broke out onto one of the open walkways overlooking the prison yard, with a clear view of their target.
"Gondola ahead," Suki said, never losing her focus. "It's touching down. We can do this."
With two royal hostages, they could do a lot more than a prison break. But first they had to make it out.
The Warden met the gondola at the landing, after having run faster than he had in twenty years. The Boiling Rock did not, as a general rule, inspire its inhabitants to sprint.
Their Highnesses' guard was disembarking, well aware that a gondola could become a firetrap if the enemy numbers held firebenders. They were led by none other than Captain Izumi herself. This boded well for how her people would handle themselves, and poorly for the Warden's chances of keeping this incident off any official reports. Worse: the way the guard had formed up around a figure in their center indicated a third VIP suddenly in their midst. For a moment, he was filled with cold dread that it was Fire Lord Iroh himself, who else would have accompanied the prince and princess, but the figure ensconced by the guards was too small for that.
"Hey! Let me see!"
Too young, as well. His guards ignored him, and the Warden followed suit.
"Warden," the Captain said, "report."
"A mere escape attempt," he said, forcing his tone to the expected levels of disdain. "Never fear, today will not be the day my perfect record breaks. Their Highnesses will be perfectly safe—"
"What?" she snapped.
"They're coming!" a guard shouted.
The time for posturing before his peers was later. For now, he turned to the guardsman on the controls.
"I want those gondolas parked at the midpoint and the controls locked. The rest of you, form up. No one escapes the Boiling Rock."
The guards they'd encountered on their way here had been spotty, startled; they'd been the people in their path already when the alarm had been pulled. What they met on the gondola landing was organized ranks of resistance between them and their target. Their target, which was even now headed back over the lake. Why send guards into the prison after them, when the only place that mattered was right here?
"We have your prince and princess," Hakoda said, breaking the silence of the standoff. "If you care anything for them, you will stand aside."
A woman with silvered hair took one step forward. "You're under arrest, by order of Fire Lord Iroh," she said, and it took Hakoda's mind a long moment to process the words she'd spoken first.
"Prince Zuko. Princess Azula. You're under arrest, by order of Fire Lord Iroh."
Hakoda watched the value of their hostages plummet, much like his hopes for the situation.
Sokka couldn't see much past his stiflingly protective guards, couldn't push his way past their stupid pointed armor, but he knew that voice—
"Dad!" he shouted.
But his father and his non-moon girlfriend and a whole lot of people he didn't expect to find either here or with them were retreating back into the prison, down a narrow hall they could defend rather than the open landing where more and more guards were arriving.
"Dad!" Sokka shouted again.
But the alarm was blaring and guards were shouting and Azula was cackling, and his father had more important voices to listen for than one he'd never expected to hear at the Boiling Rock.
Chapter 23: New Plan
"They aren't coming," Hakoda said, peering around the corner to the eerily empty hall beyond.
"Oh, they are," Azula said. "They're just securing everything useful, first. The gondolas, the armory, the food supplies… The Warden has quite the procedural checklist for escapes. Trust me; I had to sit through his last annual report."
"You act like this doesn't affect you," Hakoda said.
The girl shrugged. "I can't see how it does."
"That guard just said you were under arrest," Suki said. "That doesn't affect you?"
"Don't believe everything people say about me," Azula said, waving a hand. "I certainly don't. They can say I'm under arrest all they want."
The Fire Prince snorted. Mai prodded him in the chest with a shank, in the same way another girl might have poked him with a finger.
"Is there something you forgot to tell us?" she asked.
"Not… forgot," the boy answered.
"You said we were pardoned," Ty Lee said.
"Well I couldn't tell you that I was breaking you out," he said. "There were guards right outside the door."
"Why did you need to break us out?" Mai asked. "You're a prince. We heard you were the crown prince."
"You probably heard I was the Fire Lord, too," the boy said, with his own shrug.
Clunk, said the pipes overhead. Their whole group looked up.
"So that's what it sounds like when they shut off the water main," Azula said. "I wonder how long it will take for the rest of the prisoners to turn on us. The record is twelve hours, I believe."
"Maybe they'll send in tea," her brother said, and they both laughed.
Hakoda had enough of Ozai's children acting as if there was no danger here for them. Even if they'd run away from the palace on a lark, or as some act of teenage rebellion; even if the guards really were no threat to them, they still had him.
A step forward, an arm to the throat of Ozai's son, and Hakoda was feeling much better about this war.
"If you're not going to be useful to us," he said, "tell me why I should leave the Fire Lord his heir."
It wasn't really a question. A question would have implied a correct answer. Hakoda was expecting something—for the boy's facade to crack, for him to bluster or beg. For him to show what sort of man he really was.
He was not expecting the shank pressed to his side.
"Excuse you," Mai said, her monotone frigid. "That's my boyfriend."
Suki set a hand on Hakoda's bicep; he allowed himself to be pulled away. The Fire Prince rubbed his throat where Hakoda's arm had been. Where Mai's knife had been, before.
"Funny way you have of showing your affection," Hakoda said.
"He tried to break up with me," Mai said, "in a letter."
"Yeah, um," the prince said. "Sorry about that. I didn't want you to be in danger—"
A knife lodged into the wall next to his head. The boy blinked, but didn't flinch.
"I do not need you to decide what's too dangerous for me," Mai said. "Especially not when it was too dangerous for you."
"It wouldn't have been if my plan had worked."
"And did it?" she pressed. "Did your plan work?"
"A letter, Dum-Dum?" his sister asked. "Really?"
"It wasn't even that good of a letter," Ty Lee confided.
"It's not like I've ever written a breakup letter before! I'll do better next time!"
Another knife joined the first in the wall, on the opposite side of his head.
Hakoda wondered if he'd understand any of this better, if he'd raised his own children to teenhood.
"It's not my fault no one ever needs me to rescue them!" the Fire Prince's facade had cracked. Behind it was more shouting and gesticulating than Hakoda had expected. He looked uncomfortably like the youngest on Hakoda's crew, shouting over being forced to do laundry again. "Did your plan work? What even was your plan before we got here?"
Ty Lee set her hands on her hips. "You don't get to break up with her and then shout at her. And besides, we're all really strong, so the plan was to trust each other."
"That was not a plan," Azula said. "And a terrible one, at that."
"We couldn't let them take Suki," Ty Lee said.
"Or Hakoda," Suki added. Hakoda appreciated the effort, even though none of the other teens echoed her.
The Fire Prince cleared his throat. "Actually, I think your friend and the chief are both pardoned. Or at least, the Fire Lord wants to meet them. And Unc— Iroh is working with the Avatar, and he has Southern Water Tribe friends, so the Chief is probably actually safe. I'm not sure how the Avatar's group feels about Kyoshi Island, though, they left it behind even though it was on fire—"
"It was on fire because of you!" Suki said. "They left to draw you off!"
"And hosting the Avatar wasn't a break in your little island-state's vaunted neutrality?" Azula asked.
Hakoda rubbed his temples. "I think their Highnesses have some explaining to do. We need to understand the situation before we form a plan."
He was not going to comment on the quality of the girls' previous plan, because he was not going to publicly agree with Fire Nation royalty.
The Fire Nation children both looked to Azula to speak. Azula smiled and magnanimously waved for her brother to do so, instead. He looked briefly panicked before slipping back into that uncaring confidence of his.
His confidence did not match his speaking abilities. Regardless, the jist was this:
Hakoda and Suki were likely pardoned thanks to the Avatar's intervention, while Mai and Ty Lee were not.
Mai and Ty Lee had been told they were pardoned, while Hakoda and Suki had not been.
Mai and Ty Lee and Zuko and Azula would be under arrest if caught, while Hakoda and Suki would be brought before the Fire Lord as honored guests.
No one here wanted to be either arrested or an honored guest of the Fire Lord.
"Great! We can all work together," Ty Lee said, optimistically.
"Why aren't you the crown prince?" Mai asked, narrowing her eyes at her former boyfriend.
"And your uncle didn't take no for an answer?"
"I, uh. Might have done it during the crowning ceremony."
"He told the entire court and all the little mice that he was visiting sick relatives," Azula said.
"You did what," Mai said.
"Wow," said Ty Lee. "In front of everyone? That was really brave."
"Thanks?" the Fire Prince said.
"What, is that code for running away?" Suki asked.
"So the Fire Lord doesn't kill you, I'd assume," Hakoda said. He'd never heard the phrase before, but it wasn't hard to figure out. If it was a phrase everyone at court seemingly knew, then there were few things it could be.
"It's… what?" the Fire Prince said, and his sister broke down laughing.
Mai ran a hand down her face. "Zuko. Did you start a civil war?"
"What? No. That's— Did I? Azula—!"
Azula had her arms wrapped around her stomach. If she weren't leaning against the wall, she'd be on the floor laughing.
"I just wanted to step down!" the prince shouted.
The Fire Princess straightened, her laughter flipping off like a switch. She grinned at Hakoda with barracuda-seal teeth.
"I believe," she said, "you asked for a reason not to kill my brother. There's your answer. As long as my dear, sincere brother is alive and free, we'll tear ourselves apart. Doesn't a divided Fire Nation sound wonderful?"
"No!" her brother shouted. "No, it doesn't!"
"All that political maneuvering and bloodshed turned inwards, our armies marching against each other…" Azula crooned.
"Yes," Suki said, "it does."
Hakoda was, against his earlier sentiments, forced to agree with Fire Nation royalty.
Chapter 24: Sokka Feels Very Safe
To leave, they needed the gondola. To use the gondola, they needed to take the landing, and hold it. To take the landing, they needed more people.
"Alternatively," the Fire Princess began.
"We are not killing everyone," the Fire Prince said.
"Fine, fine," she said, waving a dismissive hand. "Continue with your Plan B."
...They needed more people.
"We can't be the only ones who want to escape," Hakoda said. "If we could rally the others, or start a riot…"
"I know a guy," Suki said.
There were guards on the walkways, bellowing down to the prison yard below. This was applicable to Sokka in that he needed to time his own shouting in-between theirs.
"He's my dad."
"CLEAR THE YARD."
"No one's told him what's happening, there's no way he'd..."
"RETURN TO YOUR CELLS."
"...side with Zuko and Azula if he…"
"ANY INMATE FOUND OUT OF THEIR ASSIGNED CELL WILL GET THE COOLER."
"...knew I was here to get him. Who tries a prison break when they've already been pardoned? I... "
"CLEAR THE YARD."
"...just need to talk to…"
"RETURN TO YOUR CELLS."
"...him. You've got to let me..."
Yeah yeah yeah. What even was a cooler? Didn't sound like much of a punishment, not in this heat. Part of his brain cared about that. The rest really, really didn't.
"Let me talk to him. And Suki. Maybe even Zuko will listen; I seriously doubt that guy knows what he started."
Captain Izumi remained unimpressed.
"My orders are to keep you safe, Ambassador," she repeated. "Princess Azula shoots lightning; the only protection we have against that is keeping you away from her."
"Or we could take Zuko hostage," Sokka said. "He's good at redirecting that stuff."
As a culture, the Southern Water Tribe had figured out negatives later than some. They didn't elaborately tally their neighbor's debts like the Earth Kingdom. They hadn't had Captain Izumi, either. Her professionalism was unimpeachable, but it was rapidly going subzero in its expression.
"I'm just saying," Sokka said, "it's not like getting taken hostage again is going to ruin his day at this point. But fine, we'll call that Plan B. So back to Plan A: letting me talk to my dad."
Another guard—one of Izumi's—approached them, while the prison guards bellowed on.
"The Warden has offered his office, Captain. ...Apparently there are refreshments inside."
Captain Izumi nodded. And then Sokka was hemmed in by her whole squad, who were moving towards the Warden's office, so now Sokka was too. Life was a lot easier when 'physical harm' was an option for dealing with Fire Nation guards who disagreed with him.
"We'll clear this block ourselves," Captain Izumi said to her people, and now Sokka was trying to talk over her instead of the shouty prison yard guys.
"The Fire Lord is not going to be happy with this," he said.
"The Ambassador stays inside the Warden's office. Two guards on the door."
"You were ordered to bring my dad and Suki back safely, too."
"Another two at this junction. I'll—"
"Would you LISTEN?"
The Captain stopped. Looked down at him.
"My orders," Captain Izumi said, "are to keep you safe."
And then he was being herded into an office, and bracing himself in the doorway only kept him out for so long. He popped inside like a guard-assisted cork.
There was a desk, atop which was a lightly picked-over platter of food. There were gray steel filing cabinets sweltering in the light through the barred window, the prison records reflecting in miniature what was being done to the people catalogued in them.
There was, also, a leg sticking out from behind the desk.
"Wow," Sokka said. "I feel very safe in here."
"That does explain what happened to Prince Zuko's guards," the captain said, in a mutter he wasn't sure he was supposed to hear, and which contained at least ten percent more personality than he was used to from her.
"Alive, sir," one of her guards reported, after a quick check. "Chi-blocked and gagged."
The leg twitched. Just a little.
Sokka looked at the captain. The captain looked at Sokka.
"My dad and Suki don't know what's happening. They're going to fight you. If you think I'm going to stay in here while the Fire Nation hurts them again, when they should be safe, then I'll fight you, too."
Space sword was lost. But he had a sword with him. And boomerang. And his patented Sokka wits.
Captain Izumi pinched the bridge of her nose. "I will assess the situation. If I deem it safe, then you may attempt to speak with them. From a distance. With guards. At my signal, and no earlier."
Sokka nodded very easily to these terms that brought him closer to within shouting range of his dad.
Chapter 25: Suki Knows a Guy
"...FOUND OUT OF THEIR ASSIGNED CELL WILL GET THE COOLER," a guard was shouting outside, muffled through the walls of the cell block. Zuko focused on the voice, because it was either that or think about how he'd started a civil war and if he thought too hard about that then—
"Breathe, Dum-Dum," Azula said.
So Zuko didn't. Think. He just breathed as the hot humid air pressed in on him from all sides like a blanket, listened to the guards shouting but not at him, felt as Mai stepped up next to him and her sleeve brushed against his. She wasn't saying anything, which was good, because it was words that had gotten him into this in the first place.
Azula, on his other side, scoffed regally and turned her gaze away.
Suki was leading them through the rush of prisoners. She clearly knew where she was going; all he had to do was follow and watch each moment moving by without skipping any. And breathe. Between Azula's crown and Zuko's face, they were being given a fair amount of breathing room.
There was shouting from the ground floor. This part of the prison was a square, open in the center with cells lining its walls above and below. The last prisoners still out in the yard were stumbling in, herded by the firewhips of guards who had no more patience. There were two types of prisoners: those who were tucking themselves back into their cells, and those who weren't.
"Chit Sang," Suki called, to one of the latter. "We need a riot."
The man was standing with two others, a man and a woman. He was taller than Hakoda by the same amount that Hakoda was taller than the rest of them.
"You already have one." Chit Sang crossed his arms. His biceps were approximately the same size as Zuko's head. It was the kind of detail that was easy to focus on.
"Yeah, but we need it at the landing. We take that, we take the gondolas, we leave."
"Are you joking?" the woman with him said. "They're already starting the crackdown."
"BACK IN YOUR CELLS," a guard below shouted. The prisoners in the first floor were falling in line, pressing themselves back into their cells as the guards systematically locked them in.
"Can't your new friends just pardon us?" Chit Sang asked, with a jut of his chin towards Zuko and Azula.
"They're useless," Suki said.
"Huh," said Azula, like someone newly applying the term to herself.
"Yeah," shrugged Zuko, a veteran.
"How many years is your sentence, Chit Sang? What about your girl's, or your best buddy's?" Suki asked. "Do they have an end? I know mine didn't. We know there's a transport ship parked at the docks right now, since they came here to pick up prisoners. Everyone is already riled up. And we have two targets they want more than the rest of us. This is as good a setup as you're ever going to get. You want in?"
Someone threw the contents of a mop bucket down on the guards below, followed by the mop itself.
"Do you want in," Chit Sang corrected, and: "Yes. Hey, everyone! Breakout!"
More than mops followed.
The 27th Revision of the Boiling Rock's Escape Attempt Contingency Plan, as presented for the pleasure of His Majesty, Fire Lord Ozai, as heard by Princess Azula, who should have learned from Zuzu that nothing good ever came from asking to attend meetings, even if her penalty had only been boredom:
The first and second steps: containment of escape means and resources. Without the gondolas, there was no escape. Without supplies, prisoners could not hold any ground they took.
The gondolas shuddered to a halt, far above the boiling lake below.
The Warden took the key from their operator and tucked it around his own neck. He then placed himself in the densest grouping of his best guards; his safety was, of course, a matter of prison security.
"All high-priority targets secured, sir," a prison guard said, bowing to the Warden.
"Good," he said, and did not even think to bow back.
Step three: containment of movement. Guards will move block by block, starting from the guard's wing and moving outward, locking the steel gates between prison sections.
"It would take even a skilled firebender hours to melt their way through," the Warden had boasted.
"Really," Azula had said, one hand propping up her cheek, the other rolling blue fire above her fingers.
"Your Highness' illustrious flames excepted, of course," the Warden said, suddenly sweating more than the room's fires would account for.
"How long will this take you?" Hakoda asked.
"Longer if I must waste breath answering you," Azula snapped. The steel bars glowed a steady, solid, immutable red, mocking her, defying her—
"Azula?" Ty Lee said.
Ty Lee pointed to Suki. Suki held up the keys they'd taken off their guards, back at the start of this.
Azula graciously stepped away from the door.
"I could have done it," she said. "This is hardly even saving time."
"I'm sure you could have," Ty Lee said.
Step four: containment of prisoners. With the population fragmented and demoralized, returning them to their cells and targeting the perpetrators for punishment would be easily accomplished.
"What?" the Warden snapped.
"They have keys."
...The Warden was going to have to revise his plan. Again.
The guards tried to set up choke points.
The guards had never trained against smiling ex-circus acrobats who could down them with a touch, or someone bored enough to file every spoon she'd encountered in this place into a knife. Those still standing after those two had gone past had the rest of the prisoners to contend with.
Not everyone was escaping with them. Most weren't; most had been here too short a time to risk fighting back, or too long. But they had enough people to overwhelm the first choke point. And the second.
At the third, every Fire Nation citizen visibly stalled, even as Suki and Hakoda had stepped forward for another attack.
They were the only ones who didn't recognize the armor of the royal guard.
Chapter 26: Prison Air Is Good for the Health
It was said that the first of the Royal Guards were chosen by Agni himself; sparks scattered from the very fire with which the first Fire Lord's flame had been kindled.
It was documented in the palace's archives that, Agni's direct benediction no longer forthcoming, the earliest Fire Lords had a simple test for those joining their personal guard: lasting a minute in combat against Their Majesty.
Modern Fire Lords no longer deigned to personally test each of their guards (modern Fire Lords presided over a nation, with a staff size to match, rather than a local clan; modern archival clerks knew better than to point out that "Fire Lord" used to be a title held by many, rather than by one).
Regardless, the standard of combat prowess remained. The hesitance among the prisoners at the sight of those uniforms was palpable.
"There is a simple solution to this," Azula said.
"No murder," said her brother.
And so Azula, with a roll of her eyes, let this keep playing out.
(This hallucination was overly detailed, anyway; murder here would be such a mess. Murder by firebending even more so; it always smelled like a freshly swept Agni Kai field, like smiling while her brother burned because mother had tried to teach her how it was appropriate for a little girl to put her emotions on her face but mother had never covered this, and anyway Zuko had it coming, and father could turn to check her reaction at any time—)
No, it didn't hurt to indulge her brother in this little dream. He could have as little or as much murder as he wanted.
One of the guards stepped forward from the rest; a silver-haired woman, with the extra ornamentation on her armor that marked an officer, though Hakoda didn't know this uniform, or what rank it signaled.
"I am Captain Izumi of the Royal Guard," she said. "May I speak to Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe and Suki of the Kyoshi Warriors?"
"Speak, then," Hakoda said, after a pause.
"It is the Fire Lord's intention to pardon you, if you come with us," the captain said.
"We've heard." Suki was tense at his side.
The captain's gaze shifted to her, then settled back on Hakoda. "It's your son's hope that you will."
Before he could process that threat, work through the sudden chill of them having his son, of the sense-memory of their last hug at the invasion and his growing confidence, his hope, as each new prison he was brought to did not contain a precocious Water Tribe genius, that the children really had escaped; before the shock of failure could settle on him, there was shouting from down the hall and across the yard.
The captain let out a small breath, slow and deliberate, that Hakoda could almost have mistaken for a sigh. She gestured her people back; back far enough that, if he wanted, he could step forward enough to reach the opening in this hallway that overlooked the prison yard, and the walkway opposite them.
His son was there. Flanked by two guards who were failing to contain his flailing arms.
Not flailing: waving.
"Sokka?" asked Suki.
"Fire Lord Iroh is the Avatar's firebending teacher," the captain said, after another of those measured exhalations. "His Majesty brought with him to the palace his… Water Tribe ambassadors."
"It's safe!" Sokka yelled, jumping up and down as if this would aid his point. "Not a trap! I'm definitely not a hostage! Which is exactly what a hostage would say…"
His shouting dropped off into muttering as he stopped his jumping and rubbed at his chin. Hakoda and the guard captain stood in relative silence until Sokka snapped his fingers—inaudible at this distance—and raised his voice again.
"Would a hostage tell you that when he was seven, the one who broke your favorite spear and hid it in the snowbank until spring was him, not Aput's polar dog? I think not! So you can definitely trust the nice fire lady! Wait, not the Fire Lady, that would be Zuko's mom; where even is she, do we have to fight her too…"
The inaudible chin-rubbing mutterings began anew.
"He's in lightning range," the princess said, quite off-handedly. Hakoda tensed.
"Still no murder," the prince replied.
"I suppose there's already been enough of that, on mother's account."
The Fire Prince did not laugh, for once.
It was hard to tell from a distance, but Sokka seemed… healthy. He was dressed in Water Tribe colors, and the guards that flanked him seemed more concerned for how their captain across the way would react than the boy between them. Sokka turned slightly, and Hakoda could make out the sheath of a Fire Nation-style sword and his boomerang.
His son was here, and healthy, and armed.
Hakoda eyed the captain. She met his gaze with a certain weary professionalism.
"Your son has asked that you be escorted to safety," she said.
"And the other prisoners?" Suki asked, because they were very much not alone in this hallway. Said other prisoners were doing their own muttering; some quietly slipping away, some steeling themselves for the outcome of this interaction.
Ty Lee and Mai were watching Suki.
"I am not," the captain said, her next words carrying just the faintest trace of distaste, "breaking out anyone the Fire Lord has not already approved."
"That's going to be a problem," Suki said. Even as she spoke, her stance settled back into something more combat ready.
Or it did, until Ty Lee poked her in the ribs. Not one of the girl's disquieting paralyzing jabs; a normal poke, between friends.
"You should go."
"You wouldn't have left without me," Suki said.
Mai sighed, far more dramatically than the guard captain. "You're the one we wanted to get out. Now get out."
Something passed between the three girls, in the silence that followed. Suki slowly eased out of her stance.
"Should I tell the Fire Lord about you?" she asked.
"Would it help?" Mai asked, in her usual monotone. The question on all their minds.
The girls hugged; Ty Lee and Suki fiercely, Mai simply allowing it. And then Hakoda and Suki stepped towards the nice fire lady, and if Hakoda had any lingering doubts about his son's not-a-hostage-status, the happy whoop from across the yard settled them. The rest of his doubts would have to wait until he met this new Fire Lord.
The guard captain hesitated, looking behind them. Her gaze flicked to the princess, but it was to the prince she spoke.
"Your Highness. The Fire Lord wants you back safely, as well. He's concerned for your health."
'Concern for his health' had gotten them here, via the Agni Kai field. Concern for Azula's health had gotten her a room in a mental institution. Zuko met Captain Izumi's gaze, and shrugged.
This was not the answer she was looking for.
"Please surrender, your Highness."
Yeah. Iroh had asked that, too.
"You weren't at my coronation," he said, only just realizing it. She hadn't been part of his guard rotation after the Agni Kai. She'd probably put herself on Iroh's, instead: the captain of the guard belonged with the Fire Lord, not a prince. He'd last seen her in that too-large too-bright hospital room, assuring him he wasn't a prisoner.
He didn't think she'd say the same, now.
Captain Izumi closed her eyes, for just the briefest of moments. Then she reopened them, and kept talking, and he felt smoke curling inside him where his fire used to live.
"The Fire Lord wants you back."
"Back where?" Azula asked, with the lightness of a question she knew wouldn't be answered.
Izumi held her silence, because the Fire Lord hadn't told her. Because it wasn't her place to make those decisions.
"Well," the princess said, "that was informative."
"I'm not going back," Prince Zuko said, meeting Izumi's gaze.
That wasn't her decision to make, either. Nor his. Izumi had been a member of the royal guard since Azulon's reign; she knew what the will of a Fire Lord could accomplish. Trees didn't get an opinion, when the forest burned: the flames of Agni's line reshaped the world.
"I won't bow to him," the prince said. "I'm not bowing, ever again."
"I also decline," the princess said, with a moray-shrike's smile. "You can tell our uncle not to worry: the fresh air is doing wonders for our health."
Prince Zuko was still meeting her gaze. "Thank you for speaking with us, Captain. You are dismissed."
There was a certainty to his words that he'd never had as her Fire Lord.
Captain Izumi bowed, precisely as low as a prince of the blood deserved. Then she left her prince and princess in the corridor of the Boiling Rock, surrounded by criminals and political prisoners who had no love for the crown.
Chapter 27: Prison Dossiers
Mini-Muffin is TEETHING. Take this chapter, before he mauls it.
The Boiling Rock had two types of inmates: those with end dates on their sentences, and those without.
A murderer could expect fifteen years; a rapist three. A thief more or less than the former two depending on who they stole from, though the Boiling Rock rarely dealt in such petty matters; the coal mines ate through those. For crimes against the state—sedition and subversion and disrespect of the Fire Lord and the nation his person represented—only death would do.
...As some people were too inconvenient to execute, lifetime imprisonment had to suffice.
As the royals and their (former) guards spoke, the murderers and rapists and thieves did their best to slip away unnoticed, back to their cells before the guards could get far enough into the lockdown to catch them out. The seditionists and subversives stayed.
A life sentence at the Boiling Rock left one with very little to lose.
Crime: Subversive Play Writing
Formerly the lead playwright of the Ember Island Players. Best known for his stirring rendition of Love Amongst the Dragons, in which he distilled the original six hour drudgery down to ninety minutes of captivating entertainment (suitable for all ages), and became beloved among the nation's vacation-home-owning elite because of it.
This made it inconvenient to execute him when he was found with contraband manuscripts from the Air Army itself, and notes for an adaptation written in his own hand. Peace Amongst the Fire Lilies was notorious as the first banned play to not even have a script.
He still received fan mail, if heavily censored. It was a health insurance policy of a sort.
"Well that's the final curtain," Ju-An said, as their fledgling royals declined to surrender in the face of a full squad of Royal Guards. It was a very royal thing to do, to think declining an option.
He remembered the prince and princess, waist-high and already thinking themselves entitled to play hide-and-explode backstage in his theater house. Their mother had been much more well mannered, but by the time she'd come to collect them the prince had already scared his lead performer half to death by appearing in their wardrobe and the princess had immolated a roll of their firebending ribbons when it defied her efforts to twirl it as adeptly as she did her flames.
He had hoped they would remember him more fondly than their grandfather, who had imprisoned him, or their father, who had returned his petition for release with a suggestion that Ju-An write a few plays in his honor first, but both had their turn on the throne with no thought for the man whose playhouse kept them entertained every rainy vacation day of their childhoods.
The teenagers in front of him did not appear to have become less self-absorbed than those children had been. They seemed to take it for granted that the prisoners would help them escape; hadn't questioned a moment of it.
"They're not expecting us to back them in a fight, surely?" he whispered to those nearest, less than thrilled by the prospect. Ju-An was here for the breakout; that the royals had instigated it was incidental.
"They've got the firepower," another prisoner said. "We can always help them slip once we get to the gondolas."
"The gondolas have pretty high railings," the Fire Prince said, proving both that he had extremely good hearing and that he'd entirely missed the point.
"Lower than you'd think," smiled the princess, who hadn't.
The Royal Guards were newly departed. The prison guards had not yet arrived. The prisoners' numbers were a third of what they had been a moment ago. If they were going to act, they needed to do it now, and together.
How unfortunate, that the nobility never played nice with mere playwrights and peasants.
Name: Chit Sang
Imprisoned For: The Creation and Distribution of Seditious Pamphlets
Chit Sang didn't have the money for university, okay? It wasn't about intelligence, it was about money and breeding. No wealthy family meant no university meant no draft exemption. So there he was in the navy, part of the blockade. And there was this one night on shore leave at the usual town, and there were those stupid flyers those university kids were handing out, about how if everyone just worked together they could petition the government and end the draft and end the war and return the Fire Nation to its principals.
That was how they spelled it: principals.
And he told them, he told them on three separate shore leaves, it was "principles." A man has principles, a school has a principal, and what was theirs teaching them.
The fourth time—the fourth time he might have been a little drunk, okay?—the fourth time with the same kids too good for the military and the same little pieces of paper they thought would change anyone's mind and the same typo on every single one of them, well. He might have taken some of his friends out for a real night on the town. They'd gone to the bar, then they'd gone to the university, then they'd broken into the room with that fancy new printing press and he'd fixed that typo at the source. Most satisfying moment of his life.
Right up until the home guard broke in to raid the place.
It was a lot less satisfying, being on trial for writing those typo-ridden manifestos. He told the judge it wasn't him, he was in the navy, he'd been at sea, and if it were him he'd have proof-read the things before dumping them all over town. If it were him. Which it wasn't.
And the barristers for those little university shits had brought in all the witnesses who'd seen him talking with the kids, the kids who said they'd been intimidated by the Big Bad Bender into writing those Terrible Traitorous Things, and they were so sorry Your Honor. What bright futures they all had ahead of them once they graduated; what a horrible mark this would leave on their records; could the judge really allow that to happen to these misled children when the mastermind was standing, unrepentant, right there?
The penalty for sedition was execution, unless a guy shut up and took the fall. So Chit Sang did.
Principles: he knew wealthy brats had a different definition.
Chit Sang crossed his arms and loomed, which was an especial talent of his. "All we need to get out of here now is muscle," he said. "We've got muscle. Why should we get caught up in whatever problems you have?"
"Oh, betrayal," the Fire Princess said. "I am shocked, shocked to my soul's fire."
This was a quote from the unabridged version of Love Amongst the Dragons. The playwright and the prince, as the only two to recognize it, took a moment to glare at her for the droll delivery.
"That was atrocious," the playwright said. "And I believe it should go without saying that I will risk my life for freedom, but not for your freedom."
This was, itself, a much abridged version of the final climactic speech in The Sandbender's Soliloquy. Some might even call it a butchering thereof. The prince and princess glared at him.
"I hate to interrupt the posturing," one of the female prisoners said, "but the sand clock is running. Can we save the political infighting for the boat ride out of here?"
"Ship," Chit Sang corrected. "You don't take a boat this far out into the open ocean. It'll be a ship."
No one glared at him, but only because no one cared.
"We've got muscle and firepower," she said. "What we don't have is time, and there's a detail you all seem to be forgetting that we need to figure out before we get there."
Her name was Nari, and logistics was what she did.
Crime: Embezzling Military Funds
Nari was the daughter of a minor colony logistics officer, and her career path followed the same. She was competent, but not too competent. Too-competent lowborn officials were apt to get promoted out of their cushy dockside offices and onto the frontlines, where the real supply issues were.
Too-competent officials, left sitting bored in their cushy offices, were apt to find the account inconsistencies that revealed a colony-wide embezzlement scheme from the governor's office on down.
In retrospect, the blackmail attempt had been a bad idea, and a good way to get scape-rat-goated.
At least they'd taken her threats with literal-minded seriousness. "If I die, all that evidence is getting mailed to the Fire Sages," indeed.
She was going to live a very, very long time if she stuck around here. (Or a very short time, if the people she'd left those records with decided to try their own hustle.)
Logistically speaking, and to use the proper terminology, escape from the Boiling Rock was FUBAR from the get-go on a typical day.
The water was already shut off in their section; that put them on a time limit even before Nari factored in the lockdown sweeps currently in progress. They were fighting against heat stroke as much as they were fighting against the guards, and the actual act of fighting would only accelerate matters. On a typical day, thanks to the Warden's penchant for schedule randomization, she couldn't have even guaranteed that there would be an escape method waiting for them on the other side of the gondolas.
A typical day didn't involve two former Fire Lords and an entire squadron of Royal Guards coming to visit. There was definitely a boat docked out there. Or a ship; whatever. The only thing standing between them and freedom was a brawl. She liked those odds.
She didn't have to like the company.
She could remember a rusty ship that stopped at her dockside offices every few months, and the banished prince who thought shouting at the clerks was going to get him his supplies faster. As if they were the problem, when it was higher-ups like Zhao getting their chuckles off by ordering the delays. Kid would rather yell at the person in front of him than the people actually responsible. Responsibility wasn't a strength of most sixteen-year-olds, in general.
"Even if we make it to the gondolas, that doesn't get all of us out," Nari said. "We need to leave behind enough fighters to keep them from cutting the lines. I don't suppose Their Highnesses are volunteering, so..."
"Yeah, I could do that," the Fire Prince said.
"...Who's staying? If we can't decide, we should just scrap— Wait, what?"
The prince shrugged under their collective gazes. "I could stay."
"No you won't," she scoffed, at the same time the princess was saying, "No you won't," in an entirely different tone.
"It's not that big of a deal," Prince Zuko said, turning to his sister. "Hold them off until you're on the other side, right? Then I just need to get across the lines before they finish cutting. They looked wide enough for running. Probably."
" 'Probably'," the princess parroted, to the prince's continued shrugging.
"That sounds like fun," Ty Lee said.
"That sounds like idiocy," Mai said.
(The playwright Ju-An remembered, suddenly, that time they'd delayed a show because the prince was in the rafters.)
There were sounds in the corridor behind them; the lockdown sweep was almost on them.
The prince who met their eyes wasn't shouting. He had way better hair now, too, though Nari had no clue what was up with the Earth Kingdom style.
"Are you coming?" he asked, and she realized he'd already run the numbers. His party was going ahead with this escape, whether the rest of them were or not. They weren't waiting on the prisoners, they were waiting for them.
"Why?" she asked, eyes narrowed. "What do you get out of bringing us along?"
"You might not believe this," he said, "But I'd like to actually help someone escape, for once."
His sister snorted.
She did believe him. What she didn't believe was that this kid was the same one who'd left her ears ringing for hours.
(Nari remembered the spike of unsolved supply thefts that accompanied every denied request for the prince's ship; particularly the ones that involved clothing or food for his crew. Sixteen-year-olds shouldn't have had to be responsible.)
"Yeah," she said. "All right. After you, Your Highness."
(Chit Sang didn't have any previous memories of the royals, but he was about to make some.)
Hugs were amazing and Sokka was, henceforth, never not doing them.
"Can't breathe, Sokka," Suki said, totally proving that she could breathe, and that Sokka was not hugging her anywhere near tightly enough. The following squeak and tap out against his back was much more convincing, but… no, he could do better. The sudden shift of weight and she was slipping out of his hold and grabbing one of his arms and then he was staring up at her smile from the floor was much more convincing.
"I missed you," he said.
"I gathered that," she said, and offered him a hand up. The hand up was followed by a hug. Which, it turned out, felt even better when she initiated. "It's so good to see you," she said, soft and low by his ear, like speaking any louder might scare this whole prison extraction off.
He had, of course, already hugged his dad. His dad who was alive and here and fully capable of making Sokka's ribs creak. One of the sweetest sounds known to man.
Captain Izumi had tried—was trying—to herd them off to the relative safety of the Warden's office. Which was an extremely questionable safety to begin with, and Sokka was much harder to herd now that his dad was standing by his shoulder, arms crossed, staring down any Fire Nation-y person who came too close. There would be no more physically dragging him off, not unless the captain wanted a very physical fight. Sokka was existing in a bubble of Skeptical Dad Protection, and it was the most wonderful feeling ever.
"This area is not safe," the captain had said. She was clearly speaking as someone who had spent the past year in places that could be called safe. Sokka could not relate.
"I'm not saying that if we don't see Zuko get arrested and immediately take him into custody ourselves then somehow he's going to slip out of it," Sokka said, "but I am definitely saying that."
It was just this feeling he had.
"Are to protect me," Sokka said. "Yes, I got that. I can even sort of appreciate it, though I admit the whole 'surrounded by forces who were loyal to Ozai three months ago' thing does not feel as protectiony as I think you're going for. Counter offer: can we watch from up there?"
He pointed up, to the walkway overlooking the gondola platform. Nice and out of the direct fight.
The captain closed her eyes and took in a breath and let it out in a counting-to-ten-in-her-head way, then led them up. Another win for compromise.
This was why Sokka was in the perfect position to see Zuko and his prison posse reaching the landing. There were less prisoners with them then there had been, but still way more than Sokka was comfortable with, because hardened criminal backup. The guards had them vastly outnumbered, but Zuko had Azula and pokey girl and knife-throwy-girl, which were a mini army unto themselves.
...Or would have been, if either of the Fire siblings was actually using their flames. Azula was mostly just strolling through the center of their fight, occasionally taking down any guard who dared attack her, looking bored. Zuko was... using swords? He wasn't the only person down there with them, but Fire
Prince Lord firebender Zuko was using swords.
He was using two swords.
He was using two swords a lot better than Sokka could use one.
(It wasn't hard to get two swords off the guards they'd beaten on the way here. It was hard to get two with matching weights and the distinctive shape of his own dao, left back on the balloon. Zuko was feeling exceptionally sloppy in his swordsmanship.)
Hakoda watched the landing being flooded by guards, those who'd already been stationed there joined by those being called back from every corner of the prison. The teenagers were good, but the same could not be said of every prisoner with them. They would be overrun before long, especially if they continued to avoid killing.
The Fire Princess' words came, unbidden, to the back of his mind: As long as my dear, sincere brother is alive and free, we'll tear ourselves apart.
"How much do you trust this new Fire Lord?" Hakoda asked his son, trying to speak low enough that their escort couldn't overhear.
"He helped train Aang," he said, after that delay. "He's been with us for months, he helped plan Ozai's defeat, he fought to free Ba Sing Se. I trust that he wants to end the war, and he's not out to backstab us. Is this really the time to talk about it?"
With two-thirds of Fire Lord Iroh's rivals for the throne about to come under the man's control, it was exactly the time. Possibly the only time.
World peace was one thing. What was best for the Southern Water Tribe, possibly another. Hakoda tensed as the escapees were pushed back by the newest wave of guards, now on the defensive instead of the offensive.
Doesn't a divided Fire Nation sound wonderful?
His son had hesitated. Hakoda did, too.
Suki did not.
"I'm getting a full pardon, right?" she asked.
"Right," his son replied, distracted by the sight below.
Which was the point Suki nodded to herself, and vaulted the rail.
"Wait, no, wrong—"
"—Wrong!" someone was shouting, but Zuko was a little distracted by his sister, who was starting to get irritated—
"They're just earwig-flies, Zuko. If you'd let me swat them, we'd be out of here with all your new turtleducklings."
"No murder," he repeated, standing between her and a guard who'd looked mortality in the eye and found it to be a teenage girl. Behind her, the Kyoshi Warrior dropped directly down on another guard about to attack them. This saved Zuko from having to defend that one, too. "Please, La— Azula."
"Good save," Azula said.
"I'm not doing it for you," Suki said.
"That's fine," Azula said, with a roll of her eyes. "I wasn't talking to you."
Suki entered the fray, filling in gaps where playwrights, desk officers, and their other non-combatant subversives were having trouble. (Chit Sang was not having trouble. Chit Sang picked up a guard, and used them as a battering ram against a line of others. This allowed their group to take two collective steps closer to their goal.)
The Boiling Rock was one of the Fire Nation's most well funded prisons, and its remote location meant that every single shift lived on base and was available for backup. This was, of course, detailed in the Warden's plan, in the unlikely event of his other anti-escape measures failing. The guards weren't limited by numbers, but by how many of them could fit on the landing at one time.
A lot. It was a lot. Ty Lee wasn't as bouncy as she'd been at the start. Mai might even run out of knives. Zuko honestly still felt pretty good, better than he had during his Agni Kai, but he recognized that his own health was a low bar to reach.
"Would you rather be locked away again?" Azula asked.
"Yes," he answered, and got back to not killing his people.
His people did not share the sentiment.
The Water Tribe ambassador was trying to throw himself over the railing. Captain Izumi had caught one of his arms; his father had gotten the other. On this, at least, they were agreed.
If the chief had let her do her job earlier, hadn't looked ready to fight over bringing the ambassador to safety, his son wouldn't be trying to crack open his own head on the metal plating below. If the ambassador had allowed himself and his group to be led away from the fight, his girlfriend wouldn't have been here to make the leap look easy.
If Captain Izumi had exerted better control over the situation, had wrangled her charges better, they would all be tucked away safe right now. She'd failed.
She'd failed Azulon, who had been in good health when she went to sleep on a night years ago. She'd failed Ozai, who had scoffed at the idea of needing something so trite as trained and loyal guards to watch his back in the field. She'd failed Azula, who had laughed when she'd knelt to re-swear her oaths. Laughed, and sent her away, and Izumi had chosen to interpret that as get out of my sight and keep doing your job instead of you're banished like all the rest. She'd failed Zuko.
She kept failing Zuko.
Arms full of a squirming teenager, she didn't even see the moment it happened. Only the immediate aftermath: the flames dispersed by wind rather than the block of a royal firebender. The prince falling backwards, a hand coming up to his shoulder, his neck, and then recoiling from the touch as if—
As if burned.
She couldn't see how bad it was, from here. All she had to go by was his brief shout, a choked-off thing like a child who'd had too much practice.
The prince was down.
His sister stepped forward.
Azula was back to Plan A.
"So you like burning people," she asked, conversationally. "It's so nice to share hobbies."
Zuzu had been a Dum-Dum and forgotten his own fire was out: he'd tried to block instead of dodge. Good to know he hadn't been lying about not being able to defend against her own flames; it let her strangle one of those niggling little voices in her head, the one that said he lies he lies he's afraid of you like all the rest he lies. She pushed a pillow onto it and held it down as she took another step, and batted away the guard's frantic flames, and lit a little blue candlelight over her finger that would slice through his armour, peel this offensive snail-roach from its shell for her to squish and salt and burn—
"One moment, Zuzu, the adults are talking."
"Please please please," the snail-roach was saying, backpedalling until he was against the rail and the only way was down down to the rocks below her lovely cliffside view. There were burns on the man's arms she didn't remember giving him; clearly they had appeared because he should have them, he was right to have them, of course he had them. There was a hastily cleared space between them. How lovely it was when people gave her room: lessons were most instructive when they only needed to be delivered once.
"My brother said please," she said, "just a moment ago. 'Please don't kill them.' You really should have listened to him. I did."
And there was Zuzu, getting between them, his new burn tracing raw and red from the arm he'd tried to disperse the flames with up to his shoulder, over his collar bone, speckle-spotted with little ember singes up the side of his neck until it could have been a continuation of father's lesson. He was letting the arm hang useless. His swords were somewhere back on the ground, which was an entirely quaint way to face her.
The guard behind him was taller, but trying hard not to look it.
"Going to say please again, Zuzu? He's saying it quite enough for both of you."
Zuko breathed out, then back in, like it would do anything for his absent flames. "I told you I'd stand between you if you choose to hurt someone."
"That was supposed to be figurative, Zuko."
Her brother furrowed his brow. "When am I ever figurative?"
She hated how much of a point that was.
"Fine. I hope you're keeping track of your breadcrumbs, brother; they'll eat and eat and eat until all that's left to eat is you."
It took longer for the guards to get up their nerve to attack again than it did for them to take her brother down. They still kept a respectful distance from her, of course. She quirked an eyebrow at Zuko as they pulled his arms behind him, even the burned one. He scowled back, as if she were the problem here. They were trying to force him to his knees. She wished them luck with that; her brother had said he was never kneeling for someone again and he was, as recently demonstrated, rather literal.
"Surrender," the Warden said, calling down from the same supposed safety of that overlook that the Avatar's friend was using.
"Stand down," ordered another voice.
"This has gone on long enough," Captain Izumi said. "The Royal Guard is taking command, Warden."
She stepped away from the Water Tribe boy, whose father was not enough to stop him from jumping the rail.
"By all means," the Warden graciously allowed, because his guards had only apprehended the prince and a handful of their escaping prisoners. The rest were still very much free. He did not watch his niece fighting with any particular feelings, of course; there was no favoritism here.
"Release him," the captain continued, which was not at all the order the Warden expected to follow.
"You can't do this," he said, and, "I won't let you do this," which were two different things, equally unenforceable.
The captain was already issuing hand signals. Had been, since her first words. Her guards were already down the stairs; they shoved through his own and forced the prince's release. The princess laughed, a sound that was overly loud in the ensuing silence.
Two other Royal Guards gripped the Warden's arms. Captain Izumi removed the gondola key from his neck.
"I'll die before letting this happen," he said.
"Your protests will be noted in the official record," she said. "I outrank you. Follow your orders, soldier."
Captain Izumi was too old for jumping rails. She took the stairs.
Azula remained impressed with her brother's aptitude for laying breadcrumb trails to treason.
Sokka had honestly felt safer when he was dropping into a fighting mess of prisoners and guards than when the lady who'd come here to guard him stepped down among them.
"This isn't what your Fire Lord would want," he said, probably drawing more attention to himself than he should.
"I have no orders for this," she said, with her utmost formality. "In the absence of orders, it is the Royal Guard's sworn duty to serve their nation to the best of their ability."
Sokka was stunned speechless by the amount of civil disobedience she was construing into that sworn duty of hers.
"Thanks for jumping down," Suki whispered to him, nudging his arm as they watched… this. Whatever this was. This was the prison guards trying to look to their Warden for guidance, but the Warden's very vocal protests were getting quieter—well, not quieter, but certainly further away—as the captain's men hauled him off down the hallway above to… somewhere. A cell? His office? The boiling lake of no-inconvenient-evidence?
No, Sokka was not feeling his safest.
At least he had Suki at his side. And possibly her friends. Ty Lee was standing with them, not with the royals. Mai wasn't, but only because she was going around to the guards pinned to various railings, walls, and the ground to reclaim her knives. And he had his dad too, who was treating everyone but Suki and him to the same try me and see stare as he worked his way over to them.
"Dad, we need to do something."
His dad set a hand on his shoulder, and didn't do anything.
A civil war did sound good.
A Fire Lord who didn't see his people as expendable resources sounded… not better, because Hakoda knew exactly how dangerous a leader could be when protecting his own. But it would certainly make the boy something different than the Fire Lords before him. Different might be worth risking.
Hakoda would not help the Fire Prince. But he wasn't about to risk his own life, or his son's, to help the Dragon of the West retain his throne.
The prison guards stood down. There wasn't much choice, when any action they took could be construed as disobeying a superior officer; they might as well take the option that didn't involve fighting the Fire Princess again. Or the Royal Guard.
"May I see your burn?" Captain Izumi asked.
"No," Zuko said.
"...Do you have medical supplies?''
This was also a no. The captain ordered such supplies found. And food and water, enough for all the escapees.
"You really think we're staying here while you and your people stall with niceties?" the princess scoffed.
"I think you're staying until your people are on the other side," the captain said. "Those gondolas are slow."
She wasn't wrong.
The captain's orders to retrieve supplies had involved no twitch of hand-signed subterfuge. She cleared the landing of any guard not her own, and set those that remained at a perimeter that gave the prisoners breathing room. She gave them the key to the gondola controls. She didn't try to see his new burn again.
She seemed trustworthy. Zuko wanted to trust her. But he had people to protect who hadn't stood back while Iroh challenged him, and he couldn't, he physically couldn't, looking at her and thinking trust made numbness creep up his fingertips and everything was so distant, she couldn't ask this of him again, she couldn't—
Azula poked his new burn.
"Oww," he scowled, shooting her a glare.
"If you leave me alone to handle this," she said, "I will handle it."
He looked over their party. They'd have to drag a few unconscious ex-prisoners with them, but they hadn't lost anyone. Mai was rearmed and Ty Lee and Suki were getting their wind back and the Water Tribe ambassador and his father were inexplicably here, which… was. A thing.
He pinched the bridge of his nose with his unburned hand, took in a breath, and focused on his burn because at least it was something that didn't need anything from him. It wasn't even that bad; just like a training burn, but… bigger. The guard had pulled his punch in that same wide-eyed moment when he and Zuko had both realized Zuko's block was doing nothing. It had been one of those basic firebending moves to make your opponent react, to force them to deflect, a five year old could have turned those flames away—
Zuko let out his breath. Slowly.
"We won't all fit in the first gondola," he said. "I'll wait here to guard the controls."
In case it was a trap. In case this was another case of him misunderstanding the captain's loyalties.
(He hadn't misunderstood them at all; he'd just ignored the issue until the Fire Lord she was loyal to wasn't him anymore.)
"Understood," the captain said.
"Not alone, you're not," Azula said. "If I leave you then the dream moves on without you."
He knew the feeling.
"Wow," Ambassador Snoozles said. "You are really crazy, huh."
"So?" the Fire siblings replied, in perfect deadpan unison.
The last prisoners were on the far landing, disembarking. The other gondola was here, empty and waiting. Azula and Mai and Ty Lee had stayed with him, which was two more people than he'd expected.
...Also Suki and Snoozles and Snoozles' dad, which was still a thing.
"Are you… coming with us?" he asked the older man, who seemed to know what to do with that question exactly as much as Zuko did.
"...No thank you," the chief settled on, his arms crossed.
At least he was polite about it.
Mai was opening the gondola's door. Ty Lee was looking up at the cables above, a wishful bounce in her step. Azula was leaning against the controls, casually threatening the royal guard stationed there with the little fire dancing over her hand. It was time to go.
"Wait," Zuko said. "There's one more thing."
He looked at the Water Tribe ambassador as he said it. Snoozles did not look thrilled to be looked upon.
Inside the Warden's office was a plate of refreshments, minus some kiwi-grapes. The Warden, cuffed to his own chair, guarded by Izumi's people. And the prison ledger, with the names and recorded crimes of everyone here. Zuko took it under the Warden's scowl, and held it out towards the Water Tribe boy.
"Could you give this to the Avatar? Please. Not to Uncle."
Snoozles took it, and immediately started flipping through the heavy book with the same skepticism he'd once shown Zuko's trade proposals. "Why?"
"There's a lot of people here who shouldn't be. More than are leaving with us. Critics of the war and my family. They're not going to be a priority for Iroh; letting them out won't help him rule." Rather the opposite, actually.
They hadn't helped Zuko rule, and he hadn't even thought about them. And no one had brought them to his attention; no one would have dared.
"If the Avatar asks for their release, he might listen."
(If the Avatar asked, Azula noted, then all the Avatar's allies would know if the new Fire Lord didn't listen. Breadcrumbs and breadcrumbs; did Zuzu even realize his pockets had holes?)
Zuko bowed. The tribesman did not bow back. But he held onto the book.
Mai plucked a pomegranate-grape from the Warden's desk. "Bye, uncle," she said. "Thanks for the refreshments."
Sokka watched as Mai and Ty Lee and Azula and Zuko got on the gondola. So did Suki.
She leaned out the door and gave him a smile, but didn't come back.
"Pardon," he said, in a last ditch effort to make this day not end even worse. "You're getting a pardon."
"I just helped the rebel Fire Lords escape, Sokka. I just escaped. I'm not giving up my freedom for the promise of freedom. If he means this peace thing, have him release all my warriors, and send them home. Then I'll meet with him. Until then, I'm with them." She tilted her head towards a gondola full of very dangerous teenagers.
Azula obligingly lit a flame. Suki snorted.
"You can't take yourself hostage!" Sokka protested.
"I think I just did." She smiled. The expression dropped as she continued to look at him. She stepped off the gondola for a moment, just two quick steps, and then she was kissing him so briefly he didn't have the chance to kiss her back. Her lips moved to his ear, her breath warm over his skin.
"You really want to leave those two unsupervised? I'll be in touch. Mai and Ty Lee will protect me."
"You can see why that wouldn't reassure me," he whispered back.
They'd had this conversation once before, under moonlight at the Serpent's Pass. "I can take care of myself, remember? You can't keep me away from every danger. I hear that kind of thinking got Mai's boyfriend in trouble, too."
"Who's her boyfriend?" Sokka asked, curious. Curious became worried at her silent smirk. "Who's her boyfriend?"
Suki was still grinning as she stepped back into the gondola. She blew him another kiss as the door closed.
From the landing, they could see the smoke of a Fire Nation ship leaving dock, and a red war balloon rising.
Captain Izumi turned to her second, and bowed.
The woman bowed back.
"Captain Izumi," she said, "your actions have become erratic. Until such time as the Fire Lord reinstates you, I am forced to relieve you of command. In the name of Fire Lord Iroh, long may he reign, I place you under arrest for treason to the throne."
Treason to the throne, not to the Fire Nation. Sokka knew the difference, now.
So did Captain Izumi. Of the two of them, it took her far longer to learn.
Zuko's new burn location brought to you by Tumblr. Tumblr: where if you ask where to hurt a Zuko, you will get like thirty replies in the first thirty seconds.
@jedimasterjaina: "collar bone, mess with his range of motion in an arm for max angst"
@sangrientojoe: "hands/wrists like shielding himself from something"
@electronswrites: "Neck, where it can touch the first one, like it's something spreading throughout him."
*selects "all of the above"*
Chapter 29: Interlude: Breadcrumbs
Sokka limped into the courtyard that housed the Gaang's rooms. Turns out a guy shouldn't jump railings on a recently-broken totally-healed-now leg. Who knew? Sokka on an adrenaline rush certainly hadn't.
"Sokka!" his lovely sister shouted, running to embrace him. "We were so worried when the hawks started coming, are you all right? Is dad all right? Is Suki? Did you break your leg again, sit down—"
"Technically," Sokka said, making with the sitting down, "that's three yeses and a no."
"Technically?" she wrinkled her brow. Then: "Dad!"
More hugging followed, as dad—still in his prison clothes—entered at much less of a limp.
"What happened?" Aang asked.
"Where's Suki?" Katara asked, finally looking past dad.
"So, funny story," Sokka said. "Funny, dare I say hilarious, story. How much got through on the messenger hawks?"
"There was a breakout," Aang said, "and Azula and Zuko were there, and some prisoners stole your ship so Iroh had to send another?"
"Haaa," was a sound that came from Sokka's mouth. "Yes. Yes, let's start there. Actually, no. Let's start with: was anyone going to tell me that Zuko is a master swordsman?"
Avatar Aang, Master of All Four Suspicious Shifty Movements, was suddenly looking at everything except him.
"That was a rhetorical question, Aang," Sokka said. "Aang. Aang."
"Ooo," Toph dug her toes into the ground, grinning wide. "Spill, Twinkletoes."
Pohuai Stronghold: a conversation they should have had months ago.
"You packed the pink coat!" Ty Lee squealed, blithely rummaging through their spare clothes. Azula's clothes. Suki was already holding a shirt up to herself appraisingly.
"Zuko packed the pink coat," Azula replied, snatching said shirt from the Kyoshi Warrior's hand. "I simply failed to incinerate it. There is a difference."
The Warrior scowled, and grabbed another shirt at random. As this was one of Zuko's—specifically, one of his atrociously green former teaboy outfits—Azula allowed it.
Meanwhile, Mai was pointedly folding a piece of paper she'd stolen from the Warden's office. She walked it across the very small cramped-war-balloon distance, and shoved it into Zuko's chest.
It was a breakup letter.
"...This isn't any better than mine," Zuko said.
"I'll do better next time," Mai droned.
Mai's uncle had written a letter, as well. It had gone out with the last of the Boiling Rock's hawks, just before he and the other pertinent witnesses to this debacle were escorted onto a newly arrived ship by yet more members of the overly lauded Royal Guard.
The hawk circled a moment with the others. Then, its bearings found, it winged steadily towards the colonies.
The Warden had not been allowed a blade to rectify his disgrace. In the extra time this allotted him to think, he had decided that a pen would suffice.
"And that is when you told my nephew that he was under arrest," Iroh said.
"It devalued them as hostages in the eyes of those who would use them," Captain Izumi said, as she knelt before the flames of his throne. She added, with the dry professionalism of a woman who'd spent decades explaining herself to the nobility: "Such as the prisoners you sent us to retrieve."
She was not yet in prison clothes, but she was no longer in the armor of her rank. Her hands were uncuffed, as a courtesy for her long service, and as a reminder to watchers that the Fire Lord did not fear a single guard.
"It also escalated the situation past your control, Captain, and left my unwell niece and nephew with a false impression of my intentions."
"I don't believe it did," she said, and did not clarify to which part of his statement she was referring.
His fingers pressed into the carved arms of his throne. "Why did you not bring them home? Others testify that you could have."
"Perhaps I misunderstood your orders," the captain said. "Were they under arrest?"
The flames between them did not flare. Iroh had better control than that.
He had placed Azula in an asylum because she had been habitually threatening the staff, her family, and herself with her bending; because she had been, to all accounts, in need of such an institution's particular help. Zuko had described her situation as hurting no one, when he had nearly died because of the damage she'd caused his heart. Nearly died from overwork, as well. Nearly died for more cumulative reasons than Iroh's own heart could think on for long. What was the word, for dragging runaway children back home for their own good?
But he did not think anyone, particularly the former captain in front of him, would change their mind upon hearing that word.
And he had never done well, as a parent. Lu Ten, Zuko—
Thank you for the lesson, father.
Iroh had hoped to have him home, before the lines being drawn in the capital and across the nation placed Zuko on one side, and Iroh on the other. Before anyone else tried to force his son into being the figurehead of a movement, rather than a sixteen year old who might, even now, have no idea what he'd started.
It was a day since the failed coronation, and already too late for that.
"You will resign, Captain," he said. "I hear your home is quite lovely. Perhaps you would care to remain there."
"Only my Fire Lord can accept my resignation," she said.
She was removed to her cell. His guards—the Fire Lord's guards—escorted in the next witness. Through the flames, he could not see if any of them were meeting his eyes.
Her trial, when it came, was before a closed court. Her sentence was to the Boiling Rock, for a term indeterminate.
Suki and Ty Lee lay on their backs on the war balloon's floor, shoulder to shoulder, their feet propped up on its side, taking up more than their fair share of the cramped space. Azula made a point of kicking them everytime she renewed the balloon's hot air.
"I should have run those gondola cables," Ty Lee said. "They just looked so fun, you know?"
"You'll do better next time," Suki said, because that was now going to be a thing their group said to each other.
"My letter wasn't that bad," Zuko groused. Then: "Oww," because it was Mai who was changing his bandages.
"We have ropes here you can die on," Azula offered.
Ty Lee stared up at the steel cables holding the balloon in place, and sighed. "It's just not the same without the boiling lake."
"It really isn't," Suki said, with proper prison solidarity.
"But why didn't he deflect it?" agonized another guard, recently pardoned in his own closed court for the crime of injuring one of royal blood. "I saw his stance, it was perfect, it shouldn't have touched him—"
The palace guards swept an eye around the kitchen, then huddled closer around their visitor.
"What do you know about the Avatar?" they asked.
People around the palace were looking at Aang. Looking at him even worse than they had two weeks ago, when it had become common knowledge that he'd defeated Ozai by taking his bending. Looking at him in a way they weren't even looking at Iroh, who could put them in jail for as long as he wanted. And apparently it was normal for Fire Lords to do that because Sokka had brought back that ledger that went back decades and some of those people had been sent to prison for protesting the war or the royal family while Azulon was alive and Iroh was the crown prince, and—and Aang wanted to show him the ledger and get all those people freed, but not today, not right after Iroh had spent hours questioning all those people and then making that ruling against the captain (not the trial, the ruling, there hadn't been a trial, did the Fire Nation not do those? Did the Fire Lord not?) and—
"Avatar Aang," Iroh said, ceasing their practice. "I sense you have something on your mind."
She was just doing what she thought was right, Aang could have said. People shouldn't go to jail for doing what's right, even if it was wrong.
But it was harder to speak up in the Fire Lord's court than he'd thought.
(Zuko had spoken up. Zuko had spoken up against Ozai, when he'd been only a year older than Aang . This was just Iroh, who would listen and talk Aang through things and by the end it would make sense. Aang had only been invited to the final ruling; maybe there was something he'd missed in all the questioning, something that explained why Iroh couldn't just let her go—
But he didn't want it to make sense. Because it felt wrong in his chest, and what if it kept feeling wrong, even after Iroh talked his head around?)
"People are scared of me," he said, instead. "They think I took Zuko's bending."
Iroh sighed, and sat down on the courtyard's veranda, and patted the wood next to him. Aang joined him.
"They do not understand what you did to Ozai. New bending techniques, particularly those with no known counter, can be frightening."
"Do you think I was wrong?"
"I think it would have been difficult to capture or contain my brother if his bending remained intact; your actions have prevented him from hurting even more people. I think a living man, brought to justice before the world, will heal rifts that a dead man could not. I think that finding a way to avoid killing him is something your people would be proud of. I think that I am proud of you, for being the Avatar we truly need: you remind us that the true end to war is not through killing, but through compassion for one's enemies."
Aang felt better for a second. And then… not. "Your people think their inner fire is a gift from the sun god. That taking it is worse than killing. You didn't tell me that."
Iroh stroked his beard. "It was hard to tell in advance how most would perceive your actions. I did not know, after all, that it was a gift that could be taken."
Because Aang had run away, and hadn't had time to tell anyone about what the lion-turtle had taught him when he got back. Because the comet was already there and they were already fighting without him.
His thumbs chased each other, over and over in little wind-spinning circles. "Why didn't you tell me after? When you'd had time to think about it?"
Iroh gave a smile. It seemed a little tired. "It is a delight to savor a fresh moon peach," he said, "until the worm at its center is found."
"Eww. So you were going to tell me later. But you wanted us to have time to feel good about winning, first?"
"Just so, Avatar Aang."
Iroh's gaze traveled over to the far side of the courtyard, where Katara was healing Sokka's leg for the second time that day. He'd kind of thought that demonstrating his dramatic leap from the prison rail had been in order. He'd only done it from the veranda down to the ground, but his oww had told them all that it had been a bad idea before Katara had a chance to.
"I had hoped that my nephew would regain his fire with his freedom, at least," Iroh said. "Or that he would have stayed, even if he had turned down the crown, long enough that I could introduce him to some old acquaintances of mine. Avatar Aang, you bend fire, but you are not yet a firebender; you have not yet felt the truth of your inner flame. I believe the Masters Ran and Shaw could be of some assistance to you. It would help me to see them again, as well. I feel I could use the reminder."
"So where are we going?" Mai asked. She had not joined Suki and Ty Lee in laying on the floor. She was sitting, like a person who had left prison with her dignity intact.
"An uninhabited island," Zuko said. "It's in the north of the archipelago. We can rest there before we cross to the Earth Kingdom."
"Is there anything interesting there?" Ty Lee asked.
"Ruins and oversized wildlife, apparently," Azula replied. She was referring to the reported bugs.
She was correct, regardless.
Chapter 30: Landing
Five teenagers should never spend a multiple of that time in an increasingly cramped war balloon.
"Oh thank the spirits," Suki said, flopping onto the sand.
Ty Lee, whose energy level had spiked in the confined space, somersaulted over her, presumably just because she could. The distinctive sound of someone splashing in waves followed. "It's just like Ember Island!"
"Watch out for the unagi," Suki said, on reflex. The clouds above were fluffy and far apart, the sky endlessly blue, and if she didn't turn her head she could pretend all that infinite elbowroom applied to her, too.
There was a rock outcropping not far off, and a tide pool full of spiky things. Sitting at its edge apparently suited Mai much better than flopping in sand or splashing in the surf.
"It's better than jail," Mai allowed.
"Arguable," Azula said, leaning against their faithful transport's basket, helpfully supervising her brother as he wrangled its rapidly deflating balloon.
"I could use some help here," he said.
"I'm sure you could," replied his sister.
"You were in jail?" Suki asked.
The Fire Princess rolled her eyes. "We were all in jail. Though I suppose mine was a sanatorium."
Yeah. Suki was just going to keep watching her clouds and not think about how high the sky went, or how many hours she'd spent trusting that girl to keep her and her friends from plummeting. Maybe the balloon's basket would have floated. Maybe.
The prince had wrestled the fabric to the ground, and was now attempting to fold it. This came close to infringing upon Suki's flopping spot. It did infringe upon her uninterrupted view of the sky. Also, he was definitely trying to do things mostly one-armed. His sister continued to not help him.
With a sigh, Suki rolled back to her feet, and grabbed the fabric opposite him. "Ty Lee. Mai."
Things went a lot faster with four. Or three and a half: between the prince's injured arm and his apparent confusion about the sudden backup, he didn't completely count. Azula kept leaning against the basket, not helping.
"Thanks," the Fire Prince said, when the balloon was stowed and Ty Lee had followed Mai back to her tide pool.
"Thanks for getting us out," Suki said. "Still not forgiving you for burning down my village, though."
"The Avatar can waterbend."
"He couldn't then."
"Yes. He could." (Large-scale, deck swamping quantities of waterbending, Zuko did not add.) "You gave him shelter; he was obviously going to help you."
"That doesn't negate the part where you lit my peoples' houses on fire. Personal responsibility is sexy, you know."
"I don't want to be sexy. I just want to," he waved his good arm in a way that probably meant something to him, "to be on an abandoned island with my sister, on my way to another nation, and everyone can just forget I ever existed, including the people whose houses I lit on fire."
"Is this an apology?" Suki asked. "Because I'm starting to see why you write letters."
"It's not an apology," the prince scowled. "I'm done apologizing."
"Are you," Suki said, narrowing her eyes.
"Funny," she said, "from where I'm standing, it feels like you've only just begun to be sorry."
"Oh, just fight it out," the princess said, with a dismissive flap of her hand. "You're both non-benders now, it's fair enough."
"Excuse me?" Suki said.
She received another hand flap for her efforts.
"Give me one of your swords," Suki growled.
"You can have two," the prince said, which is how she ended up with the swords he'd swiped off the prison guards while he pulled a sheath and dual dao out of nowhere, and oh, now he was using both arms.
As the ensuing acrobatics repeatedly kicked sand her way, Azula huffed, and stalked over to the tide pool. There were clown anemones waving their many head-tentacles, and fire goby crabs darting about in sunbeams between mossy clumps of multi-hued seaweeds. A blue-ringed catopus kitten looked up at her mewed a distorted, underwater mew. It was an idyllic microcosm of nature. She wondered how much heat it would take to boil.
"Our feet are in here," Mai said, correctly predicting the direction of her thoughts, as Mai was wont to do.
"I'll take that under advisement," Azula said, sitting on a rock. Not one so close as to be mistaken for being with them.
Ty Lee leaned back and back on the heels on her palms, and looked at her. Smiled at her. "Thanks for coming for us, Azula."
"It was Zuko's idea," she scoffed.
"Yeah, but you didn't stop him."
She could scoff again. But that might be mistaken as caring about this topic. Instead, she lay a theatrical hand over her heart. "I am known for my indulgent nature."
Ty Lee laughed. Mai didn't.
"Why couldn't we find him?" the black-clad girl said. Speaking of clothing: why had everyone chosen Zuko's shirts over Azula's? Was it a fundamental failing in taste? The only one wearing anything of Azula's was Ty Lee and her pink coat, which Azula formally disowned —
"Azula?" Ty Lee asked, her eyes crinkling in that smiling-but-worried way she'd developed before their little treason attempt, after Zuko's imprisonment, when Azula had to be more careful about thinking through her answers because father was seeing treasonous disappointing children everywhere. It wasn't that she was lost in her thoughts; incautious time-wasting delays like that were for other people.
"Zuzu?" Azula said. "Oh, that's simple. Stone prison. Dai Li. After our uncle broke out, father stopped believing in letting family members leave. He also stopped believing in doors. You went right past his cell, actually." She gave a little shrug, palms up, what was one to do?
"You know we were just worried, right?" Ty Lee asked, quiet as a snake-rat. "For both of you. We would have asked you to come rescue him, too, but if we were caught, Ozai couldn't know you were involved."
"I wasn't. And I wouldn't have been. Zuko was exactly where he deserved." She quirked her lips. "So were you."
"Wow," Mai said. "You are really bad at apologies."
"Excuse you, I would be excellent at apologies," Azula said, "if I ever had reason to give one."
"A real prodigy," Mai droned, nudging along a cleaner starfish with her foot as it tried to exfoliate her toes. It jet backwards on its arm-tails, so fast it shot from the water. Its pathetic flopping was an accurate illustration of Mai's attempts at making a point.
Ty Lee rescued the thing, scooping it back into the water. "I would forgive you," she said. "If you did apologize."
The crustacean tumble-swam back to the bottom, no better off than it had been before her help.
"You choose him," Azula said. "Enjoy your choice."
"...Okay. Well, still; thank you for coming for us," Ty Lee said again, like it meant anything for either of them.
By then her brother was on the ground with a sword at his throat, which provided ample reason to ignore her.
"You have a death wish," Suki said, eyes narrowed. "Just apologize."
The prince shrugged. Shrugged. It shifted the sand under his shoulders and jostled the sword at his throat, and she had to pull back slightly to avoid drawing blood. If she did, when she did, she wanted it to be intentional.
"I'm done apologizing," he repeated. "But I'm also done being an asshole, so I can promise not to burn down your village again."
"This is you not being an asshole?"
"I might need some practice." Another shrug. The worst part, besides his mere existence, was how sincere he sounded.
His sister was watching from her rocky perch, toying with a little flame on her fingers. Mai and Ty Lee were watching, too.
Suki scoffed, and lowered her sword. She didn't offer him a hand up; just walked away, leaving him sprawled on the sand. She wished he didn't look so comfortable there.
"How long are we staying here?" she asked, joining the tide pool viewing. A single glance was enough to tell her that Fire Nation animals had more tentacles than she was strictly comfortable with. She started to sit down next to a colorful little kitten, the only recognizably safe animal, but Mai wordlessly tugged her to a spot further away.
Everyone in their group, herself unfortunately included, looked to Azula for the answer to her question. She was their transport's only power source. A dependency Suki would like to rectify as soon as possible.
Azula shrugged the shrug of a girl who could answer, but enjoyed having the prerogative not to.
"...Right," Suki said. "We're good on food for a while, but we should find fresh water before we make any kind of dent in the supply the captain gave us."
"Most of these islands have lakes," the prince said, and swung an arm up to point at the jungle pressing up against the high tide line, and the rocky plateau beyond. "We should have a good view from those cliffs."
It wasn't a bad idea. A better idea would have been paying attention on the way down, but the landing had been a little… abrupt. She still wasn't sure if it was because the princess was tired, or because she'd thought it was funny.
"Who else is coming?" Suki asked.
Blank looks met her question.
"Really?" Suki sighed.
"Cliffside views have lost their appeal," the princess said.
"I can see them fine from here," Mai said.
"Two auras can harmonize better than three," Ty Lee said. "Also, I really need a bath."
"You and me, then," Suki said, with accurate enthusiasm.
"If it helps," the prince said, "you could push me off and no one would know."
"Well now they will," Suki said, unclear on if she was joking. Unclear on whether the prince was joking, either.
(Zuko didn't have a death wish. He had a trust wish; it was a lot harder.)
(It was all right for Zuzu to leave Azula's sight here, in a way it hadn't been at the prison. This wasn't the important part of the dream. He was only going to get water; a blink and he'd be back.)
On the other side of cliffs, a ten-ton air bison landed. His two passengers departed, also cliff-ward.